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The Republicans

Republican Disenfranchisement: How the "Mother of Parliaments" Excludes the People's Representatives

The result of the 2015 general election to the House of Commons (there is never an election for the second chamber) surprised everyone. But one thing was certain from the start. No honest republican would be allowed to sit in the legislature when the election was over.

For the law makes standing for election to that chamber pointless for those who cannot take an oath of allegiance to the Windsor family. They are banned by the Parliamentary Oaths Act from sitting in "the mother of parliaments". The British version of democracy says a republican must choose between swearing a false oath and going without a basic democratic right.

The boast is often made that the British parliament is the "mother" of parliaments. But in the twenty-first century the British legislature still puts inherited rights before the rights of the people. Some legislators have inherited their seats for life. Others are appointed for life and are accountable to no one, least of all to the people.

But a republican who is elected fair and square by the people of her or his constituency will not be allowed to represent those people in the House of Commons unless willing to dishonestly and dishonourably swear or affirm allegiance to the Windsor family. This is required by the Parliamentary Oaths Act of 1866. Similar oaths are required from judges, police officers and officers in three of the armed forces.

The slow progress of democracy in Britain

"I do declare and promise that I will be true and faithful to the Commonwealth of England as the same is now established, without a King or House of Lords."
Oath of Engagement, 1649, Commonwealth of England

"I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and her successors, according to law, so help me God."
Britain's twenty-first century feudal oath.

The 1866 Act requires that elected legislators publicly affirm or swear an oath of allegiance to Elizabeth Windsor (the hereditary head of state described in the oath as "Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth"), to her son Charles Windsor and to any member of her family who might follow her as hereditary head of state. Any representative of the people who fails to do so is liable to be fined and to be thrown out of parliament.

In April 2001 the Centre for Citizenship's founder wrote to the Speaker of the House of Commons, hoping for an assurance that if should be elected to parliament he would be allowed to take his seat in the "mother of parliaments". You can read his letter here.

The Speaker did not reply in person but the response was not delayed. This is what his Secretary, "Sir" Nicholas Bevan said:

"But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."

1943 United States Supreme Court ruling in favour of a school student who for reasons of religious belief would not recite the Pledge of Allegiance. West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette

"The Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 makes it an offence for a Member to vote in the House or to sit during a debate without having sworn the prescribed oath (or made the solemn affirmation). The prescribed penalty is a fine of £500 and loss of his or her seat. Primary legislation would be required to alter these arrangements.

"Any Member who is successfully elected to Parliament must therefore swear the oath (or make the affirmation). It is, of course, open to any Member to seek to alter the established arrangements through the legislative process."

Nicholas Bevan elaborated on this in a further letter which you can read here.

So there it is. In Britain there are legislators who inherited a seat in Parliament from their fathers. There are others who were given a seat without the bother of an election, sometimes after acts of generosity to the party of government. But a representative of the people cannot represent those people unless he or she will swear or affirm that their loyalty is to a feudal institution.

Apologists for this law point out that there are MPs with republican beliefs that have sworn or affirmed allegiance to the monarchy in order to take their seats in parliament. This, they say, means that republicans in Britain are not really denied their civil rights.

"Nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe." Justice of the Supreme Court Brenda Hale in Lee v Ashers 2018.

A letter to MP and Labour government minister Tessa Jowell shows this contempt for civil rights when the monarchy is at issue. Her response to a request for support? "What's the problem? Other republicans break the law and swear a false oath. Why can't you?" Read her letter here for an example of the devotion to democratic principles and courage of this politician.

In truth a law that requires a representative of the people to lie and to make a statement that is deeply repugnant and inconsistent with a belief in the sovereignty of the people before they may exercise a civil right, is a law that denies them that civil right. A democracy that prevents a democratically elected legislator from taking her or his seat in the legislature without swearing allegiance to a feudal institution that is at odds with the democratic spirit and democratic institutions, is a democracy that has no sense of shame.

The Parliamentary Oaths Act has survived in a nation that considers itself a paragon of democracy because to repeal it would be to question the legitimacy of the British monarchy. And those MPs who do question that legitimacy are afraid of the conservative wrath that they would face from both Left and Right if they did so in public.

As so often in Britain's democracy the ease of a shoddy evasion is preferred to the rigours of principle. The mother of parliaments would rather its members swore false oaths and that republicans of deep democratic conviction were denied a basic right, than allow a feudal institution to be undermined.

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