From 9.30 this morning, Scotland's newly elected MSPs have been trumping down the aisles of Holyrood's chamber, raising their paws to heaven, and muttering ritual saws about their submission to the British Crown. The godless may affirm, the pious can swear. Each receives a flourish of applause having completed their oath-taking. No doubt much of the entertainment of proceedings is winkling out those with embarrassing middle names. For participants, it is assuredly an moving moment as they process down the aisles. The greenhorns may feel a tingle of trepidation. All in all, it has the character of an emotionally-laden formality, quotidian in its detail but weighty in its implications. Over at Bella Caledonia before the polls opened, they were talking about liminality; the between-state, at the threshold. Those at all familiar with anthropological theories of ritual, in particular Arnold Van Gennep's Rites of Passage, are likely to recall them as you watch eager-faced MSPs-elect being confirmed in their roles today.
Yet it strikes me there is another interesting aspect to Holyrood's oath-taking ceremonies. More recent anthropological research has questioned the idea that rituals should be analysed in terms of their social function, moving from studying ritual to ritualisation, emphasising rituals' mixter-maxter combination of different elements and the blending and adulteration of traditional forms. For example, many contemporary weddings incorporate a good deal of "traditional" Christian elements - from their setting, to hymns, to officiating clergy. It is highly problematic, however, to "read off" the piety of those participating from their enthusiastic singing of "Immortal, Invisible God only Wise". Such rituals are governed by curious ideas of propriety and tradition, muddle and compromise amongst participants - "A registry office? That's not a real wedding!" - whose relationship to the outward content of the ceremonial may be highly problematic, contradictory - but certainly complex.
It was in that context that I lend a lobe to Holyrood's opening enrolling ceremony. One aspect of this proceeding which particularly interests me is how it has been transformed by our tribunes beyond a stuffy and superfluous oath of fidelity to the Hanovarian line in the eyes of God. While such ceremonials have long gone on in Westminster, it is fascinating to see how Holyrood has carved out its own ritual conventions and subtly or less subtly adjusted the significance of this oath-swearing process. It is, I'd suggest, an interesting but paradoxical example of how:
“ritual symbolism can provide a source of creativity and improvisation, a counter-cultural and anti-structural force, engendering new social, cultural and political forms.” (Lukes 1975, 302).
The Scotland Act 1998 provides that after any general election the Scottish Parliament must by law complete a ritual in order formally and fully to convene (§84). Each elected member must take an oath or solemnly affirm to:
“be faithful and bear true allegiance to her majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors according to law.”
Each member in turn proceeds to the well of the chamber, observed by their fellows who clap when the oath or affirmation is completed. Those oath taking members “swear” to be faithful, “so help me God” – and are invited to raise their right hand as they repeat the statutory formulation. By contrast, affirming members “solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm”, with the reference to ‘God’ being excised (Oaths Act 1888) and without being invited to raise their hand heavenward. However, several affirming members spontaneously do so. There have been three instances of the full parliament undertaking this ritual since its foundation (unsurprisingly, following symmetrically in the wake of the three elections of 1999, 2003 and 2007), each time with various members adding personal reflections of their discontent with the terms of the oath. For example, the Maximum Eck added before his oath in 2007 that:
"The Scottish National Party's primary loyalty is with the people of Scotland, in line with the Scottish constitutional tradition of the sovereignty of the people." (Scottish Parliament Official Report 9 May 2007, Col 1)
Those harbouring republican sentiments, opposed to monarchical institutions and styles frequently note that their affirmation is made “under duress” (Frances Curran, SSP) or with some theoretical and political qualification emphasising the superficiality of their submission. (There were 23 such qualifications in the Scottish Parliament Official Report 7 May 2003). In 2007, Elaine Smith (Labour) elaborated, saying:
“Before taking the oath, I state that I believe that the people of Scotland should be citizens, not subjects, and hold firmly that my allegiance should be first and foremost to them. However, I recognise that to serve my constituents in the Parliament I must meet the legal requirement of taking the oath and will, therefore, do so” (Scottish Parliament Official Report 9 May 2007, Col 6).
In addition to these examples of avowed, fingers-crossed protesting participation in the ritual, and even the repudiation of the logic of the royal vow - the oath of allegiance has prompted a number of members to incorporate explicit symbols of resistance into their performance. For example, in 2003 Scottish Socialist member Colin Fox attempted to sing Robert Burns’ “A Man’s a Man For A’ That” only to be interrupted by the Presiding Officer of the day, advised that “I am sorry, but there is no singing in Parliament” (George Reid) and he would “have to wait until the end of the queue”. (Scottish Parliament Official Report 1 May 2003, Col 3). Alternatively, and less tunefully, other members have presented a raised, clenched fist in place of an open palm (Tommy Sheridan 2003) and the phrase “my oath is to the people” written across the palm (Rosie Kane 2003).
Less contentiously, but perhaps more curiously, members have elaborated – and arguably, elevated - the significance of the brief ceremonial further by choosing to repeat their English language oaths in Gaelic, Doric, Scots - transforming taking a queer and antiquated oath into a multicultural and multilingual expression of Scottish diversity. The SNP's now deceased Bashir Ahmad was the first MSP to take this oath in Urdu. According to the Scotsman, today the oath will be repeated in six languages, including in Italian by Edinburgh Central's new MSP, Marco Biagi. The paper recognises that "today's ceremony is no stranger to expressions of identity" but doesn't reflect on the curiosity that the efficacy of these identity-fostering performances bear no substantial relation to the words actually being said. Gil Paterson is quoted, saying:
"We have a wide range of cultures, roots and linguistic ties in this 69-strong group of SNP MSPs and as our MSPs take their seats they are highlighting just some of the different cultures the SNP represents across Scotland."
Indeed, as others have noted, this improvisation and the significance of using different languages is actually despite the words of the oath, which I'd suggest will have limited poignancy for the vast majority of parliamentarians. They may feel a catch in their throat, MSPs may be moved, but the feeling of the ceremony is unlikely to be attributable to the dread weight of their oaths to be thirled to a lawful line of succession in the searching eyes of God. Like the lungful singers in a church wedding ceremonial we imagined earlier, we would entirely misunderstand the social significance of the ritual if we simply stayed at the surface level of the official prose. A little questing into the phenomenon reveals a ceremony of formality and feeling; of form and re-interpretation; compliance and play; of submission and resistance. A curious little anthropological drama of contemporary Scotland.