Norman Baker: time to ditch the oath of allegiance

by Stephen Tall on August 8, 2008

For those who are surprised that Norman Baker should have come third in our poll of most-rated Lib Dem shadow cabinet members, much of Stormin’ Norm’s popularity is the result of his championing of causes just like this:

A collection of 22 cross party MPs are launching a campaign to end the tradition of swearing allegiance to the Queen when entering parliament. Led by Liberal Democrat Norman Baker, the MPs are calling for the choice to swear an oath to their constituents and the nation instead.

“This is a matter of democracy,” said Mr Baker. “I’m put here by my constituents and it’s to them I owe my allegiance. Taking the oath to an unelected person is a nonsense.”

For those who want to enjoy the foaming-at-the-mouth fulminations of the Daily Mail and Sun you can click here and here.

My favourite knee-jerk idoticism is Lord Tebbit’s: “They’d rather swear allegiance to Brussels.”

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Mat, you make a false dichotomy. Personally I would prefer to simply ditch the system involving a seperate head of state and institute a chancellorship, as per Japan and Germany. This would be perfectly easy to implement along with a move to a proportional system. Since we are happy having the executive power in the government, lets formalise it that way and chuck out the rest.

I agree with you that this is all outside the point of what Norman is advocating. However, while a couple of posts did say the like republicanism the debate around it was started by those against this proposal rushing to declare constitutional monarchy great as their position against this proposal.

by Tinter on August 9, 2008 at 5:46 pm. Reply #

Dynastic monarchy or not our Head of State is not merely symbolic, but the embodiment and representative of our sovereignty and freedom. And he/she is the final defence against tyrrany.

I don’t believe in oaths or swearing, but if you’ve got to announce your primary and overriding intention then I’m sure everyone here will agree we believe in defending our freedom, the liberties secured by our state and in using the tools of our state to maximise our individual and collective potentials.

In terrorising our Head of State (as this proposal does) we demonstrate we are able to prevent the state terrorising us, and we would miss that ability if it were lost.

So I will happily defend Norman Baker’s right to support the overthrow of our Monarchy, but I won’t support him in this campaign.

by Oranjepan on August 9, 2008 at 6:23 pm. Reply #

ditch the system involving a seperate head of state and institute a chancellorship, as per Japan and Germany.

Um, Japan has a monarch (the Emperor acts as symbolic head of state) and Germany has a President.

For a number of different reasons, countries need a head of state of some description. Giving that role to a separate, non-partizan ceremonial figurehead is useful and countries that do this in some way are overwhelmingly the most successful democracies.

I’m not sure what Tinter means by a Chancellorship given his two examples are erroneous, and I’m not personally aware of any countries that don’t have a head of state in some way.

Laurence—yours is the only point thus made that I can’t really dispute, it is unfair on those in the family to be expected to live their entire lives in a certain way, but each has the power to abdicate and/or remove themselves from succession if they so wish. That the current monarch has held the office for as long as she has has probably stultified the institution, change, reform and update used to be mantras of the position, ah well.

by MatGB on August 9, 2008 at 6:35 pm. Reply #

“Each has the power to abdicate and/or remove themselves from succession if they so wish.”

Yes but it’s not exactly like resigning your job at the office, is it? The problem with the Monarchy is that its defining characteristic (heredity) is also its greatest weakness. In the past, Monarchs have been completely mad, but these days it would be difficult to get away with it. My hunch is that there will be a lot of instability under Charles. I doubt William will ever be King. His children definitely won’t be. Times are changing. I must say that you and Jennie are the most unlikely monarchists I have ever come across!

by Laurence Boyce on August 9, 2008 at 8:10 pm. Reply #

Laurence, times always change and they don’t always change in the same direction.

My hunch is that we will continue to have a monarch, but a reformed House of Lords will confirm his/her election, which may mean any future members of the House of Windsor could continue to hold the crown.

Unless there is some kind of major war which breaks our constitution.

by Oranjepan on August 9, 2008 at 8:37 pm. Reply #

Oranjepan wrote:

“Dynastic monarchy or not our Head of State is not merely symbolic, but the embodiment and representative of our sovereignty and freedom. And he/she is the final defence against tyrrany.”

Eh? Charles Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glück-Beck (the heir to the throne) has expressed his support for child-beating and military conscription. So how is he going to defend us from tyranny when he has stated that he wishes to subejct us to it?

by Sesenco on August 10, 2008 at 12:52 am. Reply #

You are right Mat, I can’t believe I said Japan didn’t have an emperor! I don’t know what I was doing in that post.

However, while Germany does have a president, theirs along with Switzerland, Greece, Estonia and others is selected by the legislature. This means they are cheap, not requiring expensive elections or the stately expenses of a monarch. This system also removes soft and hard power from the position, creating the miminimum figurehead.

So basically I am advocating that a ceremonial President can be far easier to implement than you have made out, being just a parliamentary appointment and far cheaper than the current set-up.

by Tinter on August 10, 2008 at 3:35 am. Reply #

Far from being the ‘last line of defence’ against tyranny the monarchy is there to act as the first line of it’s imposition….the powers it holds could clearly be used in that way….

by Darrell on August 10, 2008 at 10:18 am. Reply #

Far from being the ‘last line of defence’ against tyranny the monarchy is there to act as the first line of it’s imposition….the powers it holds could clearly be used in that way….

by Darrell on August 10, 2008 at 10:18 am. Reply #


Germany does have a president, theirs along with Switzerland, Greece, Estonia and others is selected by the legislature

Ah, now I comprehend. Honestly, I’d have no problem with that, and feel it’s the best way of selecting a ceremonial president, however specifically that’s a) not what Republic are campaigning for, and they’re the biggest pressure group on the issue and b) still going to annoy the monarchists and royalists in a pointless manner.

I favour having a constitutional convention to cover all aspects of Government, and then put the results in a series of preferenda to the people—one of the issues should probably the head of state.

Personally I favour a compromise solution of giving most of the reserved powers to the Speaker of the House of Commons (and/or Lords) and clarifying everything else—have a true ceremonial figurehead and leave it at that, it’s just not an issue worth a big fight over and it’ll annoy too many people.

I don’t like the current set up, but complete abolishment just isn’t really a politically viable option, I’d rather fight the fights that do matter, such as STV.

by MatGB on August 10, 2008 at 1:38 pm. Reply #

It’s about time we had a proper debate about the monarchy. Their whole existence is sustained by myths, e.g…

they cost less than elected heads of state (not true: Ireland £3m, Germany £10m, monarchy £37m)

they boost tourism (not true: Palace of Versailles (ex-home of French royals) – 10m tourists each year, Buckingham Palace 400k tourists each year, Legoland Windsor gets more tourists than Windsor Castle… and the top paying tourist attraction in 2006 was the Tower of London – think about it!)

they keep the Union together (not true: it is under huge pressure already without monarchy even coming into the debate!)

they ensure political stability (not true: the fortune of being on an island has done more for stability over the years than the monarchy, and anyway, we have had what could be called a civil war going on (N.Ireland) until relatively recently! If monarchy equaled stability, then how do you explain Thailand’s 17 coups since WWII?)

etc, etc…

No good argument for keeping the monarchy, just excuses.

by William on August 10, 2008 at 1:39 pm. Reply #

Well Mat, I’m only debating on the internet. Its certainly not an issue I am going to go to the trenches over- I agree that improving governance is more important. I’m happy to advocate it where it is discussed, but its nowhere near the top of my list of priorities.

William, I agree that there are no truly good arguments for keeping the monarchy. However, there is simply no popular will for change. Even the SNP can’t agree on being republican, never mind the general public.

by Tinter on August 10, 2008 at 2:08 pm. Reply #

Let’s look a few years down the road and we will, perhaps, be able to see the social progress we have made as a nation over the last 100 years:
King: William V (old Etonian)
PM: David Cameron (old Etonian)
Mayor of London: Boris Johnson (old Etonian)

by Martin Land on August 10, 2008 at 2:13 pm. Reply #

Typical airy fairy nonsense.

by D on August 10, 2008 at 2:17 pm. Reply #

I want to reiterate the argument that our constitution as represented by our Head of State is the last line of defence against absolute tyrrany. That the monarchy might also be the first step in it’s partial imposition is neither here nor there because there is always a trade off to be made between concepts of autonomy and authority in our common interest.

The statements that the current heir has made which are at odds with public opinion are what raises a question mark over his personal suitability for the role, as they indicate he could br responsible for provoking a constitutional crisis once crowned.

But still I think it is far better that we tailor our institutions around the personality or range of personalities which occupy them than to construct them anew in the abstract with every fact that can be added.

by Oranjepan on August 10, 2008 at 5:17 pm. Reply #

Oranjepan, you are falling into the very American way of thinking. It is not the constitution as it has historically come to be that is so important. It is the commitment of civil society to constitutional governance- that is after all from whence all the power of the constitution stems, not the prescence or lack of a monarch.

There is no particular reason why a change in constitution would change this commitment. Or do you really believe that if Australia had voted to become a republic that it would now be more prey to the forces of tyranny than it was previously? I do not think this is very realistic.

Really, you last line just says its better not to change things than to change as a sweeping statement, showing your arguments conservative basis.

by Tinter on August 10, 2008 at 6:04 pm. Reply #

Tinter, I think that’s unfair.

I don’t propose that the constitution is a piece of paper, but the established framework of relationships between actual people in their official capacities.

In other words we admit essentially the same thing with only slight difference in emphasis.

What is missing from thie discussion is the understanding that many of our definitions overlap in their conceptualisation of the situation.

For example the US Presidency bears many of the hallmarks of monarchic state, including executive power over an institutional heirarchy, aspects of hereditary inheritance and a seat which echoes a cheaper version of Buckingham Palace. And yet there are plenty of extreme views to be heard which claim their republic behaves tyrannically!

As a liberal I don’t agree that republican dogma is necessarily consequent to current circumstances and I disagree that opposing dogma is a conservative trait.

by Oranjepan on August 10, 2008 at 6:35 pm. Reply #

Disagreeing with repulicanism is one thing. However, the arguments that you advance were that a change in agreements necessarily carries an increased risk of tyranny. I do not think it is unfair to call this a conservative assertion.

I don’t think its quite the same. I am emphasising nothing to do with the current hierachy, or even the general hierachy.

Rather, I am refering to society as a wholes will that there be such a system whatsoever, not its attachment to a current one.

So long as constitutional means are used to advance any constitutional change with public support, there is no increased risk of tyranny just because of the change having occured, as society will remain commited to constitutional democracy as a concept.

Since I don’t support an executive presidency I’m going to leave your analogy aside. I am not suggesting a republic will give us greater proof against tyranny- I just disagree with you that there would be an increase in risk.

by Tinter on August 10, 2008 at 6:55 pm. Reply #

Tinter, you’re making inferences which aren’t there.

I think we both oppose tyrrany and dogma and we both seek any changes to be made on an agreed basis.

It is possible that the only difference between us is the perspective we choose to emphasise, ie whether any form of limited tyrrany is acceptable or how to minimise any existing tyrrany. Is there more than a hair’s bredth between the two?

I was trying to advance the idea that obsolete definitions condition our perception of our arguments in a way which isn’t always helpful to the causes we promote.

In some senses our UK constitutionalism already engenders many republican ideals of democratic accountability and shows how republicanism can successfully be integrated within a monarchic system, however I think we both agree that nothing is perfect and improvements will be possible.

So your idea of ‘civic commitment’ to ‘constitutional governance’ is entirely in-keeping with the need to adapt government to constituent membership of the polity or nation, albeit through legitimated consent.

The question we face, therefore, is how to prove legitimate consent in some demonstrable form: if free and fair elections confer legitimacy on the body of representatives who provide consent on our behalf, how do the representatives prove their prior commitment to that body without some form of ritual oath to a ceremonial figure of authority? And; if there is no other way, is it better that any such figure is a dull and grey human being or a dead and unresponsive iconic symbol?

As above, it is surely possible to argue that our current Queen is the closest we can get to having both at the same time.

by Oranjepan on August 10, 2008 at 8:08 pm. Reply #

Rather too much hot air in these columns. As I understand it, NOrman Baker was not calling for the abolition of the monarchy, as such. What we do need in Britain is a written constitution and any legislator would be required to swear allegiance to that constitution (whatever form the head of state) as well, perhaps, as his/her constituents. On the question of whether a constitutional monarchy provides protection against tyranny, there is evidence both ways. In Spain, the post-FRanco monarchy in the person of Juan Carlos was undoubtedly importantin the early days in fending off threats to the still fragile democracy. This no doubt stemmed from Juan Carlos’s personality and his life experience, not least the example of his feeble cousin , the King of Greece, who bowed to the colonels and lost his throne. It would be interesting to know the nature of the oath that parliamentarians in the Scandinavian and Dutch monarchies are required to swear. This is an interesting topic and one which requires some common sense, some constitutional knowledge and a little less raving.

by Mike Falchikov on August 10, 2008 at 10:55 pm. Reply #

Its been said that people born in this country are subjects of the Queen. That may be the case but I wasn’t born here and when I became British I received a certificate saying that I was a “British Citizen” not a British Subject. That was before Maastricht and the HRA as well.

by Anders on August 11, 2008 at 4:02 pm. Reply #

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