Subjects not citizens

As a follow on from the prayer post, the Daily Mail (you don’t have to click on the link if you don’t want to – I’ll outline it here) has a piece, “defiant Speaker vows there will be no prayer ban in Commons”. Apparently we’re protected by parliamentary privilege.

The piece features Jo Swinson, who turns up to prayers sometimes to bagsy a seat for PMQs, but makes a point of affirming her atheism by remaining seated throughout, and Chloe Smith, who took a stand by affirming rather than swearing an oath on the Bible when she took her seat in Parliament. The latter isn’t anything out of the ordinary. I did the same. The difference is that Chloe was a by-election winner, so had to do her affirmation in front of a packed House of Commons in the full glare of media attention. When there’s been a General Election they just have clerks sitting in the Chamber all day and you can wander in whenever you like to do it.

Tony Banks of course attracted media opprobrium for crossing his fingers during the oath ceremony, when it came to the bit about swearing allegiance to the Queen. I’m not a monarchist, but I think perhaps there’s a difference between the religious bit and the monarchist bit of the oath? By taking an oath on the Bible you’d be pretending to believe in something you don’t. In making a pledge of allegiance to the Queen, yes, it might be something you don’t think you ought to be doing, and a system you don’t believe ought to be in place, but it’s actually just reflecting a basic fact about our democracy: that we aren’t citizens, we’re subjects. Bills don’t become law until they get Royal Assent. A new session of Parliament is started when the Queen gives her speech about what ‘my Government’ wants to do in the coming year. Every now and again a whip has to parade into the Chamber in proper evening dress, with a silver stick, bringing a message from Her Majesty, and then has to reverse out of the Chamber backwards while everyone laughs. The same whip has to write a handwritten note to the Queen every week, informing her of what is going on in Parliament*. And they also have the pleasure of being held hostage during the Queen’s Speech – I think at Buckingham Palace, I’m not sure – being fed gin and cake, to make sure that we give the Queen back afterwards. And the Prime Minister has an audience with the Queen every week, if they’re both in town, telling her what’s going on.

Incidentally, on 7th March (I think) the Commons will be giving a Humble Address to Her Majesty to mark the Diamond Jubilee, which basically involves the PM, then the Leader of the Opposition, then the Father of the House and whoever else wishes to partake, saying nice things about the Queen. We did it for the Duke of Edingburgh’s 90th birthday too. And then the Queen is addressing MPs and Peers in Westminster Hall on 20th March, as Obama did a few years ago. That’s not the Queens’s Speech though; we’re expecting that on May 9th.

Parliament isn’t allowed to debate whether we should continue to do things this way, despite the best efforts of Paul Flynn MP to test the limits of this ruling. So, as I said, it’s not a choice for parliamentarians whether or not to ‘believe’ in it. We have to.

* Someone on Twitter has DMd me and said it’s a daily note, not a weekly one, and it’s written by a lowly civil servant. I used to sit in the whips office with the whip who had to write it, so whilst the content may perhaps have been drafted by a whips’ clerk (and I am not going to reveal whether it was!) it was definitely handwritten by the whip herself. It might have been daily; I didn’t see her doing it that often….

* Further information has reached me that the current incumbent of this cherished post in the Whips Office, Mark Francois, prepares the note on a daily basis, about an hour before the adjournment, but it’s done on the PC not handwritten. Standards have slipped! I think they should give the job to the Mogg. He’d make sure it was done properly!


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  • Alasdair (@ralasdair)  On February 12, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    So I assume an MP would be ruled out of order if they were to make a republican point during the humble address?

  • Citizen Sane  On February 12, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Thanks to the British Nationality Act 1981, we are citizens not subjects.

    • kerrymccarthy  On February 12, 2012 at 4:01 pm

      We have citizenship, and citizenship ceremonies, but I think technically we are still subjects?

      • Alasdair (@ralasdair)  On February 12, 2012 at 4:11 pm

        I think the semantics aside (I think my passport says citizen), the reality is that we are subjects of the Mrs. Windsor-Battenberg, as you say.

      • kerrymccarthy  On February 12, 2012 at 4:26 pm

        Here’s wikipedia on the legal definitions of citizens -v- subjects.

        It’s very difficult to untangle the theory from the practice – eg the Queen has to give Royal Assent to a bill, but in practice she would never do so. It would be seen as a constitutional crisis if she did. Does that mean she has any power? And if she doesn’t, what’s the swearing allegiance all about? (As someone on Twitter has just said, in the USA they swear allegiance to a flag.)

        And that’s without getting into all the Defender of the Faith, and the link between Church and State bit too! And, head of the armed forces… although de facto that’s invested in the PM and Defence Secretary.

      • James Speck  On February 12, 2012 at 5:13 pm

        I don’t quite see what citizen vs. subject status has to do with the legislative process.

        Are Americans ‘subjects’ of their president because he/she usually has a veto on what legislation is enacted?

      • James Speck  On February 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm

        I don’t quite see what citizen vs. subject status has to do with the legislative process.

        Are Americans ‘subjects’ of their president by virtue of the fact that he usually has to grant his assent for a bill to be enacted?

  • robert guzder  On February 12, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    I think that’s a valid distinction you make between the ‘religious bit and the monarchist bit’, but the point is that support for both is assumed. It’s the assumption that’s wrong.

    (At my graduation ceremony recently, we were all forced to stand for the National Anthem. I joined in because I didn’t want to embarrass my parents, but fingers were firmly crossed! Still waiting for the University to explain why they feel it is appropriate to celebrate privilege by birth, on a day designed to celebrate personal achievement!)

  • Steven J. Oram  On February 29, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    Royal Assent is a formality contrived to endow legitimacy and gravitas to the political-governmental process. But it’s silly and anachronistic now. As Lennon-McCartney put it, “The Queen is a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say.” I’m a republican, and a subject (in my book) of the citizenry – for I recognise that my interests are bound to and contingent on the multifarious interests of ALL members of society; the monarchy remains a symbol of hierarchical elitism and privilege based on material advantage, and consequently is antithetical to that sensibility. A monarchy modelled more along Scandinavian lines might be a pragmatic compromise. Such a monarchy would function in an ambassadorial and ceremonial capacity (though many ceremonies should be recast to represent our democratisation and rejection of elitism). The monarchy thus would represent our historical-heritage and maturation (not to mention continuing to attract tourism revenue). The monarch should be repositioned ideologically and actually as a subject, like you and me, of the citizenry.


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