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!