11 May 2011

"... to be faithful and bear true allegiance..."

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.


  1. I think it's bollocks all this oath taking.

    People are judged by their actions and not by their supposed inner loyalty to this thing or that.


    Enjoy your articles very much.

  2. Indeed,

    I see what you are saying Peat Warrior.

    I am curious about the constitutional position

    The Queen's sovereignty lies in parliament.

    We have a tri-partite sovereignty of Monarch Commons and Lords.

    How is this modified in Scotland with the Scottish Parliament.

    I have always presumed it is something like this:

    In Scotland the Queen is sovereign in parliament - as devolved to Scotland.

    Is this the Constitutional Law position? or something to that effect?

    I guess when they swear an oath they are swearing an oath to the Queen in parlaiment - including as it is devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

    This therefore is an oath to the British state and the Scottish state in as much as it is devolved.

    It would be nice if the language could be subtly changed to include the concept of citizenship in our relationship with the monarch as head of state.

    Yours hoping for an answer.


    When they swear

  3. Gavin, in Scotland the people are sovereign, though that has been ignored for the past three hundred years.

    I'm sure Lallands will answer your question far more eloquently and wittier than me.

    The *^%@" :)

  4. I hope that the Scottish Parliament will one day mature to cease swearing oaths and affirmations to monarchs. It undermines the Parliament as an institution, the MSPs, the people whom they are there to represent and, indeed, democracy itself. It looks ridiculous because it is. No stunts, no antics, just wrap it.

  5. Thank you Conan. Interested to hear expanded answer on how that works within a monarchy and the British state.

    If people sovereign in scot parlt the oath shud b different!

  6. Natha,

    Glad you enjoy the blog. In point of fact, Ministers will be taking yet another another oath, the so-called Official Oath. Alex Salmond, as Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland, will be making a trip to the Court of Session, to be sworn in before the Senators of the College of Justice. Rather hope the press get decent footage of the event. It does have a certain colour and interest - and the meeting of the executive and judicial wings of the Scottish State.

  7. Technically, he is sworn in before the entire College of Justice, not merely the Senators. The Law Officers and the office bearers of the three bodies that constitute the college (Faculty of Advocates, WS Society, and SSC Society) are also in attendance dressed in their formal robes and bearing their insignia of office. Ministers are sworn on a later date, and this year there will also be the appointment of a new Lord Advocate and Solicitor General.

  8. GHmltn, Conan,

    I notice that before he took his oath yesterday, the Maximum Eck issued his usual sentiments about the "constitutional position" that the people are sovereign.

    I wanted to double-check a few things before replying. I'm interested in constitutional law, but it isn't a particular specialism of mine. A few points. Firstly, the sovereignty question may be something of a red herring. The oath itself is to the British monarch. It is not, therefore, contingent on any legal consideration about that monarch's sovereignty.

    Secondly, the Queen-in-Parliament is, as I understand matters, a concept limited to Westminster. As you suggest, the monarch constitutes the third element of the sovereign legislature, along with Lords and Commons. While Royal Assent is required for Acts of the Scottish Parliament to become law, there isn't the same conceptual integration.

    It is also worth recalling Lord President Cooper's famous remarks in the 1953 case of MacCormick v. Lord Advocate. Although principally speaking about the Act of Union, the Lord President noted:

    "The principle of the unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle which has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law. It derives its origin from Coke and Blackstone, and was widely popularised during the nineteenth century by Bagehot and Dicey, the latter having stated the doctrine in its classic form in his Law of the Constitution. Considering that the Union legislation extinguished the Parliaments of Scotland and England and replaced them by a new Parliament, I have difficulty in seeing why it should have been supposed that the new Parliament of Great Britain must inherit all the peculiar characteristics of the English Parliament but none of the Scottish Parliament, as if all that happened in 1707 was that Scottish representatives were admitted to the Parliament of England. That is not what was done. Further, the Treaty and the associated legislation, by which the Parliament of Great Britain was brought into being as the successor of the separate Parliaments of Scotland and England, contain some clauses which expressly reserve to the Parliament of Great Britain powers of subsequent modification, and other clauses which either contain no such power or emphatically exclude subsequent alteration by declarations that the provision shall be fundamental and unalterable in all time coming, or declarations of a like effect. I have never been able to understand how it is possible to reconcile with elementary canons of construction the adoption by the English constitutional theorists of the same attitude to these markedly different types of provisions."

    English constitutional jurisprudence, however, is clear. Westminster is the sovereign body - and that is not changed by devolution. Holyrood is not. It would be for an independent Scotland to determine what sort of parliament it wanted - one hemmed in my constitutional provisions in a traditional document, or a supreme parliament of its own.

  9. Graham,

    I have some sympathy with that position. I think an oath of some sort serves a useful function - but I'm no enthusiast for a vow of Regal submission.

    Voice of Reason,

    Another demonstration of your usual precision! Wrong of me to exclude the other begowned folk.

  10. Does Westminster give an oath of allegiance to the banks?

  11. I hope you were subscribed to replies to this post, as blogger has incompetently lost the subsequent comments. My apologies!

  12. Ach, mine was only to ask whether Westminster took an oath of allegiance to the banks?

  13. The real question is - how many of these Scottish Nationalists actually accept the oath?

    Whether such an oath is necessary is, of course, another question.

  14. ObiterJ,

    You mean inwardly? Do you get the whiff of a certain mental reservation?

    I don't know what legal force, if any, supports the requirement of taking an oath in Westminster - but the Scotland Act 1998 is clear for Holyrood parliamentarians. § 84 explicitly provides that an elected member who hasn't taken the oath within two months loses their seat. For the inveterate Republican, it's a fib, or nae luck.

  15. Ann Thropologist25 May 2011 at 12:00

    Functionalism as 'more recent'? More recent than what, Malinowski? It went out of fashion in the 60s. You want to be namechecking Rappaport, Bloch, 'processual approaches' and 'spectacle' instead. And possibly 'polyvocality'.

    The rest of the post wisnae bad, though.

  16. Ann Thropologist.

    A fair point - the language is loose - and I should emphasise, my expertise in anthropology is exceedingly limited and I wouldn't want to give out any other impression. My goal here was to maybe prompt folk to have a think about the queerness of this particular contemporary Scottish ritual - hopefully I managed that. In terms of its anthropological theory-driven content, it is inspired by a smattering of independent readings, with the ramshackle amateurism implied!