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14 March 2008

Sworn to the Queen

Historical records left behind by exercises in mass public oath-taking dating back to the 16th centu

By Ted Vallance

“To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied
that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to
pledge it as often as he forced them to.”

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

News that Lord Goldsmith’s review of British citizenship will include a suggestion that school-leavers should take an oath of allegiance to the crown has met with a chorus of disapproval.

Many of the critics of the proposal have complained that it represents a hasty and ill-thought out transplanting of American practice to Britain. Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the ATL told the BBC:

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‘We are not the USA, we are British, and we have a healthy scepticism of authority.’

The Labour peer, Baronness Kennedy described the plan to make British school children pledge allegiance ‘like Americans’ as ‘risible.’

Yet, contrary to the claims of Goldsmith’s critics, oaths of allegiance are actually very British devices. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, British people (occasionally women as well as men) were subjected to repeated demands to swear allegiance to the crown and even briefly to the short-lived English republic.

However, these oaths were not designed to foster ‘active citizenship,’ (at least as New Labour might understand it as a kind of fluffy, civic-minded good-neighbourliness.) The main aim of these Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian tests was to assure loyalty to the crown (oaths were imposed in the wake of assassination plots in 1584, 1605, 1696 and 1722) and/or to mobilise the male populace for military service (as during the civil wars.)

The historical records left behind by these exercises in mass public oath-taking are vast. Oath rolls (lists of signatures and marks of those swearing) run to tens of thousands of names for some counties. Yet, as with Lord Goldsmith’s proposals, it is hard to find much evidence of popular enthusiasm for these exercises.

Instead, the public reaction seems to have been a mixture of grudging resentment and fear (there were stiff penalties for refusing to swear). Reflecting on the response to the 1723 oath of allegiance in defence of George II, Dr. Stratford of Little Shelford in Buckinghamshire wrote:

‘Many women as well as men, …who never heard of a state oath in their lives, and scarce knew who was King in Israel, are told they must leave their harvest work and trot a foot fifteen or sixteen miles, to take oaths… The poor creatures are frightened out of their wits, and think their copyholds are to be taken from them…’

Some subscribers publicly registered their lack of appetite for the task. One signatory to the 1723 oath in Worcester simply wrote ‘tell no lies’ in place of their name. In some cases these perfunctory expressions of loyalty were clearly not worth the vellum they were written on: a number of leading Jacobites (supporters of the exiled Stuarts) are known to have sworn allegiance to the Hanoverian dynasty in 1723.

The practice of state-sponsored mass public oath-taking petered out in the eighteenth century, as the threat of Jacobite insurrection diminished and other, more effective means of surveying the military capacity of the state, via national censuses, came to the fore. However, declarations of loyalty, if not centrally directed, remain a feature of public life. Whether in the ‘breaking of the flag’ performed by Scouts and Guides or in the loyal toasts drunk at formal dinners, pledges of loyalty remain an integral part of traditional, British culture.

What Lord Goldsmith is proposing is not, then, an alien importation but is it, as this government likes to put it, ‘fit for purpose?’ In the first place, it is not absolutely clear what the point of these proposed pledges is. There remains a lingering suspicion that under all the talk of citizenship and Britishness lurks the older concern with national security. (See the revision of the treason laws also mooted as part of this review of citizenship.) Yet, if the government is hoping that oaths of allegiance might help weed out potential terrorists, history suggests that such tests are at best a very imprecise means of sorting the goats from the sheep. Not only can we find Jacobites taking oaths to defend the Hanoverian succession but even Catholics taking oaths to defend Protestantism.

But let’s take Goldsmith’s word for it (admittedly, something it may be hard to do, given that this is the man who made the legal case for the invasion of Iraq) and assume the purpose of these pledges is to develop a sense of active citizenship amongst school-leavers. It is very hard to see how this would work without such a pledge being accompanied by a clear and legally binding statement of the rights of British citizens. For all the derogatory comparisons made with American practice, at least schoolchildren in the USA have a constitution to pledge allegiance to.

We should remember here that the government is talking about oaths, or at least solemn pledges. This is not a mere form of words. Oaths, as a very highly paid lawyer like Goldsmith should know, have a vital function to play in courts of law, as guarantees of the truthfulness of the statements being made. One of the long established rules observed by jurists is that those taking oaths have to fully understand what it is they are swearing to. Having a good guess at what the oath might be about is not adequate. On these grounds, a simple pledge of loyalty to the Queen makes more sense than an oath to a woolly, ersatz New Labour ‘citizenship.’

That sort of oath would, of course, be inimical to anyone with republican sympathies. And here is where it becomes clear that the proposed pledges, as currently envisaged, really won’t work to encourage a sense of active citizenship. When pressed by John Humphries on the Today programme, Goldsmith admitted that his personal preference would be for a pledge which included an expression of allegiance to the Queen.

What about republicans, Humphries asked? Goldsmith’s response drew an audible, and justifiable, gasp of incredulity from the interviewer. It wouldn’t matter, the former attorney general argued, if some people wanted Britain to be a republic. They could still pledge to the simple fact that Britain’s present head of state was a hereditary monarch.

Radio 4 at eight o’clock on a Tuesday morning is an unexpected place to find the reiteration of the de facto theory of political obedience, most forcefully articulated by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan of 1651. But this seems to be what Lord Goldsmith is saying: submit to the government and constitution you have, for better or ill, even if it is not the government that you want.

Samuel Butler, the author of Hudibras, wrote that ‘oaths are but words, and words but wind.’ Goldsmith’s remarks show that, despite his legal training, he too places no value on oaths. We can either swear to love the Queen from the bottom of our hearts or we can pledge to obey her merely as our overlord until the revolution comes. It matters not a jot to him. How can active citizenship be inspired by such equivocal testimony as this?

Ted Vallance is Lecturer in Early Modern British History at the University of Liverpool. He is currently writing a history of English radicalism from Magna Carta to the present day

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