Millions of us are heading to the polls today to decide the future of our country - and to choose our MP. For all its flaws, this is a huge exercise in democracy, and one we can all be proud of. Too often we take for granted the power to change government peacefully and democratically. But it is a hard won right and one which too many people continue to have to fight for.
Over the past twelve months there has been a lot of talk in this country about sovereignty of parliament and people and the idea of the people taking control - whether that’s with Brexit or the anti-establishment message of Jeremy Corbyn and others. Yet, after we’ve cast our votes and said all that can be said about who should govern us, when MPs turn up for work next week, their first act will be to dutifully swear allegiance to the Queen and her heirs and successors. Republic's new petition is seeking to get that changed.
The House of Commons is steeped in the pomposity of state grandeur and elite rule. Of course, there are many good, hard working and sincere MPs. But the symbolism, language, rituals and power of the Commons is all wrong - and scrapping the oath would be a small step in the direction of putting it right.
The oath is a reminder that Britain isn’t a parliamentary democracy, but a constitutional monarchy with a half-elected parliament. This isn’t a pedantic point, power in the UK is largely concentrated in Number 10, not least because of royal powers long since annexed by Downing Street. The Commons by and large ends up rubber stamping the demands of government, even if after much raucous debate.
A large part of the government’s power comes from the Crown, whether it’s the power to hand out appointments and knighthoods or the power to make laws through the Privy Council. It is this centralisation of power that is the biggest problem with our constitution and it’s a problem that, while made worse through artificial majorities, largely comes from our failure to move away from the monarchy.
Yet the oath acts as a first line of defence against real reform. It reminds MPs on their first day that the monarchy is an integral part of the system into which they’ve been elected, and that the royals are off-limits from serious scrutiny by parliament. The oath also makes liars of many good, serious minded MPs, whether they are republicans or simply feel their first allegiance is to their constituents and, more widely, the British people.
Many MPs over the years have been forced to make alternative statements or raise strong objections at the time of taking the oath, most recently Richard Burgon in 2015. But if they wish to take their seats to serve their constituents they must read out the words they don’t mean and pledge loyalty to the Queen.
Some will say the oath is only symbolic and that it really doesn’t matter. And yes, there are many more pressing issues the country is currently facing. But that doesn’t mean we can’t deal with this one and ask what the oath is symbolic of. For me it symbolises values and principles that are alien to Britain’s modern culture. It tells us loyalty to Charles, William and Harry (the heirs and successors) is more important than the values and needs of the people. The oath is asking our elected MPs to pay homage to an institution that is secretive and corrupt, that abuses public money and public office for private gain.
Symbolism matters - we should get it right. Power matters more and removing the oath will remove one small obstacle to wider democratic reform. And a new oath will be a timeless reminder of the value this nation puts in democracy.