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Pledging allegiance to the British monarch is a necessary prerequisite for all members of Parliament to take their seats at Westminster. There is an alternative pledge, of ‘solemn affirmation’, which removes the religious element of the oath. MPs who wish to represent constituents at Westminster without endorsing an unelected monarchy, however, have no such alternative.
In parliamentary terms, a pledge of loyalty to the state is invalid without a pledge of loyalty to the monarch. Abstention from the swearing-in process stops elected MPs from sitting at Westminster.
Sinn Fein, a republican party, consider the monarch illegitimate and are the only UK party with a mandate to abstain. After the 2017 election resulted in a hung parliament, a Conservative power-grab sought to pervert the democratic process by pursuing a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and secure a mandate the electorate did not give. Sinn Fein have been pressured to break their own democratic mandate, take their seats at Westminster and vote against this deal. To level such demands at Sinn Fein is contradictory to its core – their mandate to abstain is given to them by voters – and exposes hypocrisy at the heart of our democracy.
Though full abstention is rare, anti-monarchy sentiment among MPs is sufficient to complicate parliamentary participation and the democratic process. In 2008, a cross-party coalition of MPs called for the abolition of the pledge of allegiance to the monarch as ‘a matter of democracy’, suggesting MPs vow to serve constituents instead. Inevitably, the motion was condemned by traditionalists. In response, Lord Tebbit described anti-monarchy sentiment as ‘an attack on the state itself’ and in so doing unintentionally conflated state politics with an apolitical sovereign, revealing the coercive nature of the pledge.
MPs who wish to pledge their loyalty to their constituents rather than the monarchy, and act in their name at Westminster, must nevertheless currently take an oath or affirmation ‘to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors’. Anti-monarchy MPs have historically employed creative resistance as a result. Remember, for example, when lifelong republican Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader and refused to kneel before the Queen to join the Privy Council (he was still allowed in, however). Veteran republican Tony Benn claimed he placed his thumb across the Queen’s hand and kissed himself instead during parliamentary ceremonies in the 1970s.
Fellow Labour MP Richard Burgon believes that ‘the head of state should be elected’ and pledged to serve his constituents rather than the monarchy at his own swearing-in process in 2015, and again in the parliamentary session that just began.
The monarch is an unelected head of state; a benchmark for loyalty to the state. The ‘apolitical’ role of the crown is contingent not on political impotence but upon the implicit powers of the monarchy. The tactic of substituting political power for symbolic power leaves the central position of the monarchy within British politics largely unchallenged, and creates a catch-22 scenario for republican politicians: anti-monarchy MPs wishing to raise the issue in parliament are bound by a pledge of loyalty to the monarch that is necessary to take their seats. At present, rules surrounding abstention mean an unelected sovereign can indirectly veto democratically elected politicians on this issue.
Requiring politicians to pledge loyalty to the monarch confers greater power to a symbolic ritual than to the democratic right of MPs to act in the name of the electorate. As long as parliamentary participation is contingent on pledging allegiance to an unelected royal, our parliamentary system will remain staunchly undemocratic.