As they were sworn in as MSPs our representatives were required to swear an oath or affirmation containing the following: “I […] bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Her Heirs and Successors.” That is the only requirement.
There is no need to declare their status as public servants, their duty to support and represent their constituents, that they will do their best to deliver the policies they were elected on, not even their duty to the country. Only this. Allegiance to the Monarchy.
Any Member who refuses to declare their loyalty to the Monarchy will be unable to serve their elected role and will be stripped of pay and allowances until they have done. If they continue to refuse the oath they shall be removed as an MSP.
This is not a fit declaration for elected representatives in a 21st-century state. It is unfit to represent the democracy that elected our MSPs. Scotland can, and should, expect better.
MSPs should not have to take an oath under protest to serve as our representatives.
This cannot be repeated. For too long our Parliament has forced MSPs to undermine the legitimacy of their democratic mandate by putting the Monarchy before their constituents.
They are elected as public servants, not as subjects of the crown.
Our Republic’s proposed revision to the oath: “I (Member’s Name), do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the sovereign people of Scotland and to our democracy, according to Law.”
“We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs”
The origins of the Scottish Parliament can be drawn back to a turning-point moment thirty years ago as 160 representatives from Scotland’s politics, Churches, academia, trade unions and other civic leaders came together to sign the Claim of Right. Ten years later politicians sat in a Scottish Parliament for the first time in nearly 300 years.
It was signed by almost all the Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs of the time. They included future political leaders Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, and Charles Kennedy. The SNP refused to continue as part of the Convention when it did not consider the case for independence, but have since hailed and supported the principle of people’s sovereignty declared by it.
The claim now lies in the Donald Dewar room at Holyrood.
In the Scottish Parliament on May 13th this year 11 newly elected MSPs protested the oath or affirmation they were forced to make. By law, they had no choice but to state “I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Her Heirs and Successors, according to Law.” Should they have refused they would have been removed from Parliamentary duties and, two weeks later, removed from office.
Among them were six Green MSPs, three from Labour, and two of the SNP.
One of them was Nicola Sturgeon, who stated “I wish to say that the SNP pledges loyalty to the people of Scotland, in line with the Scottish constitutional tradition of sovereignty of the people.”
So what is this tradition, where does it come from, and what should it mean for our parliament going into the future?
To find one of its origins, we have to go back to one of the foundational events of the Scottish nation – to 1320 and the Declaration of Arbroath. The declaration made clear what the expectations were of the Scottish King, Robert the Bruce – “King, not only by right of succession according to our laws and customs, but also with the due consent of us all”.
That consent came only a hundred years after the English Magna Carta that dented the absolute power of Monarchs over their Barons, the Church, and the law. Importantly, the Scottish declaration included the concept of a check and notice that the King could be legitimately overthrown should he betray the trust of his people, that the Barons would “we would instantly strive to expel him as our enemy and the betrayer of his own rights and ours, and we would choose another king to rule over us who would be equal to the task of our defence.”
Although it wasn’t a statement of true popular sovereignty, as the signatories would have had little real concept of such popular rule at the time, it did set a precedent. That precedent was that power was given not by birthright or divine provenance, but by contract. They ruled with consent, and should they breach that consent they would be deposed. This concept of rule by consent may have gone on to shape the American declaration of independence and the other revolutions against the absolute Royalties claiming divine right of the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1689 this would be tested when the then Scottish Parliament passed the Claim of Right Act and declared James VII deposed because he had “invaded the fundamental constitution of the Kingdom and altered it from a legally limited monarchy to an arbitrary despotic power”. The Act drew from the thinking of George Buchanan (Scottish Gaelic – Seòras Bochanan), historian, humanist, and tutor to Mary, Queen of Scots. He laid down the doctrine that the source of all political power is the people and that the monarch is bound by those conditions under which he was entrusted with supreme power, and that it is lawful to resist, even to punish, tyrants. This was not initially well-received, condemned by parliament in 1584 and 1664, and in 1683 the University of Oxford ordered his work burned by a hangman.
The Claim of Right Act is an assertion that ultimate power rests with the ‘Nation’, of which Parliament is but the representative. It also condemned the act of attempting to manipulate the decisions of Judges, and their removal, change of pay, or appointment according to only the wishes of the King as “contrary to law”. It made explicit the need for the law to not only be independent of executive power, but superior to it. No ruler, of any station, should be above the law or able to bend it to their will.
The Claim of Right is founded on the rejection of the absolute authority of the Crown, or the Crown in Parliament, to impose policy or governance on Scotland against the will of the people. It grants sovereignty to those people. Its reinforcement in modern politics challenges all those who claim to value democracy to stand against it. Are their claimed values real, or do they abandon them when given the chance to impose their will on the people against their democratic Claim of Right?
The SNP has increasingly turned to this principle as a weapon against the archaic trappings of Westminster, which has long valued the sovereignty of Parliament, bestowed upon it by the Crown, rather than that of the people. This clash of constitutional values between England and Scotland may never have come to pass without the arrival of the Scottish independence movement, but now it has laid bare a fundamental gulf between the democratic principles of the Claim of Right, which people across Britain likely feel some affinity to, and the sovereignty of the Crown.
Recently the SNP Westminster group brought a motion to the Commons declaring “the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.” A literal declaration of the principles of the Claim by Right.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon threw down the gauntlet, saying “The founding principle of that claim of right is one that all parties which have taken their place in this parliament should be able to subscribe to… There has never been a more important moment to recommit ourselves to the guiding principle of the claim of right that the people, the Scottish people, are sovereign.”
The recent history of the Claim of Right shows there is strong cross-party support, even to a degree it can be considered the status quo of Scottish constitutional politics, that it is the right of people of Scotland to choose the governance that best represents them and represent that which they no longer consider just. The Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrats backed this principle in the 80s. The Scottish Greens, SNP, and some Labour MSPs have re-asserted its relevance to our current parliament in their protests to the oath they were forced to make to the Windsor Monarchy.
Although we can look to history, learn from it, draw inspiration from it, and build upon it, we should never be limited to and by our past. The Claim of Right, and the sovereignty of the people, are the foundations we can build on as we imagine and fight for a Scotland fit for our future. That can begin with an oath for our Parliamentarians that reflects the heritage of our democracy and the modern one that elected them but must be so much more than that.
The sovereignty of the people should be the principle our modern nation rests upon, not limited by the anachronistic oaths and rituals that Westminster politics too readily turns to, hiding the Crown’s undemocratic sovereignty behind institutional procedures too obscure and opaque for citizens to follow. That means a universal recognition that only the people of Scotland can decide whether devolution suits their needs, or whether independence does. It is broader than that still. It applies to the whole constitutional settlement of rule we currently inhabit, including the independence of our courts, the structure of our Parliaments, and the powers and station of our Monarchy.
The Claim of Right leaves the power in the hands of the people of Scotland to reject the Monarchy and replace it with whatever institution they decide upon. The rule of the Monarch, and our Parliaments, can only happen by their consent, regardless of the claimed sovereignty of the Crown in our Parliamentary oaths. There is no principle of government and our constitution older, nor more fundamental to Scottish politics, than that.
Recently, the Times reported that there was a conspiracy for an unconfirmed number of SNP MSPs to immediately defect to the Alba party after they had been sworn in. This would reportedly have happened if Alba had won even a single MSP at Holyrood Parliament. This is obviously a democratic outrage. But why?
If a member of Parliament defects from one party to another, should they resign their seat and go through a by-election?
This question doesn’t lend itself to easy answers, so I thought it’d be a great question to dive into, looking at it from the perspective of the values of Our Republic.
In a representative democracy, we recognize that there are a lot of issues that we should work together to solve rather than trying to do things individually. This is everything from the NHS; defence; roads and infrastructure, to when the bins are collected and whether or not the local park should be refurbished.
So we choose someone in order to represent us on these issues and they go on to become experts who solve these big problems for us while we get on with our lives.
How do we choose the person to go make these decisions for us? We elect them. In a perfect system, we’d probably know the candidates we were electing personally, or get to go and talk to them ourselves. And actually, if you head up to northern Scotland, you’ll find that many councillors from smaller rural communities are exactly like this. Local independents who know their constituents personally and are trusted to make good decisions.
But in the busy hubbub of the majority of Scotland, our candidates join parties. These parties work together to come up with platforms (a set of policies) and we elect our representatives based on the party they represent.
So when we elect representatives from a party, then we are endorsing the platform of that party giving them the mandate to try and implement it. This is how modern politics works. Our representatives, whether councillors, MSPs or MPs are elected to do two things: Implement the platform of the party they are members of and represent the interests of the people they were elected to serve.
So what does this mean for public representatives who defect and change parties mid-term?
Since we elect our representatives based on their party, if they change party, they no longer have the mandate to represent us and they should step down, prompting a by-election. A by-election provides the people they represent the chance to either endorse or reject their new platform.
In a well-functioning democracy, there are rules, and there are norms. And the normal behaviour for a representative who changes party should be to return to the people and ask them to endorse their new platform.
But what if they refuse to stand down? Well, then there should be a way for the people to recall their representative in those rare instances when our representatives refuse to respect the democratic process.
There are many reasons someone may resign from a party, and often this is done in a manner that is principled and in good faith. But if the representative is confident of this, then they should not fear a by-election, where they have the opportunity to put their case before the people they represent.
Because, fundamentally, our representatives are public servants. They should represent us. And if they wish to change the platform that they pursue, they should do it knowing full well that the people they represent consent to this change.
The principles of Our Republic should be reflected throughout our democratic system. We should have confidence that every one of our representatives was chosen by us through a democratic process. They should be honest about what they represent and, if they fall short, we should have the option to remove them.
During the height of the Brexit negotiations, every day was another day of drama in Westminster. One of those days Boris Johnson decided he was done with Parliament for the time being and suspended it for five weeks (five times longer than usual) by sending Jacob Rees-Mogg to speak to the Queen at Balmoral Castle.
The move was described as a “constitutional outrage”, Johnson was called a “tin-pot dictator”. Thousands protested, 21 Tory MPs rebelled, and all sorts of bizarre and archaic tactics were employed in the Commons to try and force the Government to change course. The measure was rushed to the courts, ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court and declared as an “extreme” effect on the “fundamentals of democracy”. Parliament returned after over two weeks.
But… given that the declaration was unlawful, opposed by most MPs, and as an attack on the “fundamentals” of our democracy, why did the Queen consent to it? Given her consent was required in the first place, and her constitutional role as being the power who the Government governs on behalf of.
If her consent wasn’t required… what is the point of our Monarch’s constitutional role at all?
The British Monarchy exists in a kind of purgatory zone of political power, both technically holding significant power and responsibility, and realistically being unable to wield any. They’re upheld as the ideal constitutional monarchy but the exact limits of their powers aren’t actually written down anywhere and there’s a common understanding between the Monarchy and Government that any actual use of that power would be used to strip them of even the pretense they had any. Without any kind of democratic legitimacy behind them the Monarchy is toothless, an empty throne wearing the crown itself would hold the same constitutional weight.
So what are we left with? A Prime Minister whose power technically comes from the Queen, but given she cannot actually protest essentially wields them absolutely on his own behalf, and a legislature that is reliant on flimsy and meaningless arcane proceedings to hold a government to account that the government frequently, and without consequence, can simply ignore.
The result is a Prime Minister whose personal political power is without any real guaranteed limitations and is subject only to a long tradition of nods and winks he is free to, and now often does, ignore whenever he deems fit.
The importance of checks and balances on power is fundamental to the very concept of modern democracy. The division of power between branches of government is a fundamental necessity to prevent any single person or group from taking absolute control and ruling by decree. It is the safeguard against dictatorship.
So if the Monarchy cannot act, what is our alternative? It’s simple – A Head of State that has the legitimacy of a democratic mandate and accountability to wield the powers required to act as a check on a Prime Minister’s power. This democratic mandate, the legitimacy of being elected by the people of Scotland, gives them the power to refuse a Government that seeks to undermine rights, democracy, and the constitution. The democratic accountability, of there being regular constitutionally require elections for this role, would ensure that the people are able to hold the Head of State to the same standard.
However, an executive President only shifts the problem. One in the US or French style of shifting the powers of the Prime Minister into the hands of a directly elected Head of State has simply added one step more distance between the legislature our Prime Minister has demonstrated their capacity to ignore when standing in the chamber, to a person who can ignore them all the better standing far away from it. The flagrant use of rule-by-decree used by American Presidents through executive orders demonstrates this problem.
An elected Head of State can operate as a check on executive power that a Monarch cannot, but should not wield that power themselves. They are a circuit breaker, a fall-back option that dissuades the executive from over-reaching their constitutional limits and has the legitimacy and legal power to ensure they do not.
Beyond this role they can take on the remaining duties of a Head of State – Representing the nation, performing ceremonial and diplomatic duties, that the Monarchy has now been reduced to. Roles that a Prime Minister is best free from, to concentrate on their duties governing the nation.
We can see in our neighbours in Ireland the uniting influence of a non-executive President. A single figure elected not on ideological grounds, as they will have no power to implement that ideology, but on pure preference of a nation on who can represent them as a whole. Someone they can choose, not one who is forced upon them through birthright or seizure of absolute power. Someone they can replace, should they ever fail in their duties or the nation believes a new face is needed.
Scotland should have a Parliamentary Republic, led by a popularly elected President. That is the vision of a Scottish Republic I believe in.
Or Alex Salmond, or Jacob Rees Mogg, or Boris Johnson. Or even our very own President Donald Trump. Whoever the flavour of the month hated politician happens to be, they seem to always be brought up in response to the idea that we might freely elect our head of state.
Never mind that Tony Blair happens to be (mostly) retired from frontline politics or that Alex Salmond has the lowest approval rating of any Scottish politician, an elected president would inevitably be a universally hated and somehow popular former politician.
Let’s start with the obvious: of course, you might object to an elected president’s politics or character. You may even detest them as a person. The same is true of any future monarch. The key difference is that we would get to choose who represents us and that an elected president would have to earn at least some support at the ballot box.
It is very unlikely that Blair or Salmond would ever be elected president of a Scottish Republic for a very simple reason: they do not enjoy much support among the people living here. No reason to stop them from trying, if they were really keen. Indeed, one of them might try it if we had an executive President with sweepings powers to introduce legislation or declare war.
But one needs only to look over the pond to Ireland or Iceland to see that elections for ceremonial presidents tend not to be bitterly contested affairs in the same way general elections are. Most people recognise the need for our head of state to bring us together in a way our parliaments cannot, and so would prefer unifying candidates.
The nature of the office would also deter undue bitterness and divisive candidates. A ceremonial president simply would not have many powers that relate to daily life in Scotland, and would likely not attract candidates whose primary concern was directly shaping policy.
Where a President could intervene politically, in ways an unelected monarch never could, is in the tone and style of debate. A directly elected President would have been a welcome presence during the heat of our post-referendum recriminations, better positioned to remind us that no one is a “traitor” for having different views and that everyone is entitled to their say. It would be all the more powerful coming from someone directly accountable to us.
If you’re a subscriber you can access it via the link, if not we have plenty of more articles coming from our members, but at least now you’ll have the chance to put some faces to the names of some of our members!
One of the fundamental values of our society is that everyone is equal under the law. We all have the same basic human rights, we all are subject to the same laws, we all have an equal vote in our elections and therefore an equal say in how our country is governed.
Or, at least, it should be.
The reality is that this value is completely undermined by the existence of a single anachronistic quirk in our society – the Royal Family. A single family among millions are not subject to the same rules as everyone else. They have more say than anyone else and they were given it because their parents also had more say.
During the reign of just one member of this family more than 1,000 laws were vetted by them to ensure they didn’t impact them in any way they didn’t like, using an arcane procedure called Queen’s consent. That’s the consent she must give for laws to apply to people.
A consent no other person in the country has access to.
The complaint often raised when this unaccountable and secretive power is that it’s not a big deal. It’s not often used, it has little impact, any major intervention would be fiercely opposed, and it’s only one family so how big a problem is it really?
But it’s not just one family. It’s an entire social, cultural, and political system that cannot truly say that equality is one of its fundamental values. It can’t truly say it because it isn’t true. It’s one equality for us, and another for them. That’s not just one family, it’s corruptive.
The Royals are far from the only family in Britain who benefit from being born into extraordinary wealth, privilege, and power. At one end of the extreme, you have the 92 hereditary peers who sit with permanent, unearned, power over our laws and daily pay-cheques in the House of Lords, with zero accountability or democratic legitimacy.
At the other, you have the upper reaches of the 1% who are born into families of millionaires, sent to private schools that set you up for automatic places at top-tier universities, welcomed into clubs of will-be politicians, given jobs without even asking by friends of the parents, and later walk straight into power by being parachuted into party safe seats by the same people they palled around with at university.
These are all things everyone involved will claim to have “earned”. But they’re all things that anyone outside this obscenely wealthy and inter-connected club don’t have access to, all through accident of birth.
But why shouldn’t they claim to have earned it? The Royals do. Our constitution sets out exactly that this is just how our politics and society are meant to work. This is the status quo, the normal, the way things ought to be. The status of the Royal Family legitimises the entitlement these people feel towards every unearned place and display of open nepotism they benefit from.
We’re not all in this together. We’re not all equal. That’s what the Monarchy tells us, and it’s what justifies the vast gulf of economic and social inequality our society and culture holds up as just the way things are.
But we should be all in this together. We should be equal. Everyone should get a fair shot no matter who their parents are, everyone should get an equal say in how the country they live in is run.
We can’t do that with a Monarchy. We can by ditching these archaic and corruptive institutions and building a new one based on democratic accountability, checks and balances on power, and a fundamental value underpinning our laws and constitution that everyone is born equal.