Tom Collins: The only oath of loyalty should be to the people

Keir Starmer should signal his commitment to an inclusive parliament with reform of the 1978 Oaths Act

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Tom Collins is an Irish News columnist and former editor of the newspaper.

Newly elected MP for Tiverton and Honiton, Richard Foord, swearing the oath of allegiance to the Queen, in the House of Commons
Richard Foord swears the oath of allegiance to the monarch in the House of Commons following his election as MP for Tiverton and Honiton in 2002 (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA)

Today MPs will gather in Westminster for the beginning of a new parliament. Let’s hope the cleaners have taken the opportunity to fumigate the place.

A deep clean, however, will not have been enough to purify the Palace of Westminster. Although it thinks of itself as the ‘mother of Parliaments’, it is anything but.

From those green benches, decisions were taken which allowed the world to be despoiled, nations to be made subservient, and people – at home and abroad – to be subjugated. And let us not fool ourselves that these injustices belong to history, as people here well know.

To take one example: British democracy has made paupers of its own people. In Britain today, more than one in five are living in poverty. Of those, eight million are working-age adults, four million children, and two million pensioners.

In the north of Ireland, the figures show that almost 350,000 people are living in ‘relative’ poverty. More than 270,000 are living in ‘absolute’ poverty. And one in four of our children here is living in poverty. I bet you did not hear much discussion of that in the recent election campaign. I certainly didn’t.

You have to look back to the last Labour government to find a time when poverty in the UK was falling.

Unsurprisingly, poverty levels rose during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The cult of Maggie within the Tory party and its willing embrace of austerity (in partnership with the Liberal Democrats, it must be said) has ensured that the upward curve continued through the 2010s and into the 2020s. The number of people in ‘deep poverty’ (with incomes 59 per cent below the poverty line) continues to grow.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner benefited from Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme
Poverty levels rose during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership (PA/PA)

At the same time these people have been demonized by Tory Party grifters who have lined their own pockets and the pockets of their chums. Will we ever know how many private planes, yachts and fancy apartments have been bought with public money gifted by Tory ministers? I doubt it.

Many of those grifters have gone, swept aside in the ‘revenge’ election and good riddance. But it will take a generation to rebuild their ravaged country, to rejuvenate public services and to clear the excrement from the rivers. Good luck to Keir Starmer there. Britain is broken physically and psychologically, and its constitution is a joke and unfit for purpose.

For a short period on Friday, the UK was an absolute monarchy. In the half-hour between the resignation of Rishi Sunak and the appointment of Starmer, Charles had all the powers of a Tudor monarch.

He must have felt the hand of history upon his shoulders as he sipped his Earl Grey tea and waited for his new prime minister to show up, but Charles resisted the temptation to stage a coup.

Not that you would know it from the palaver today. Newly-elected MPs might think they owe their authority to their constituents, but the first thing they will have to do is answer a summons from the King to attend the House of Lords where they will be told elect a Speaker. They will have to return to the Lords to get their choice approved.

State Opening of Parliament
King Charles reading his first King’s Speech in parliament

You can see why Irish republicans might have issues with these Ruritanian procedures.

Tomorrow, adding insult to injury, MPs will have to swear on oath that they will “be faithful and bear true allegiance to his Majesty King Charles”. Sinn Féin MPs are not the only elected representatives who will have problems with this monarchical clap-trap. Members from the SDLP, Plaid, the SNP and Labour will all have issues taking this feudal oath.

I don’t for a moment want to open up the debate about whether or not Sinn Féin should take their seats. The electorate knew they were voting for a party whose policy was abstention.

There are serious questions about whether the UK can claim to be a true democracy when the rules are deliberately set up to exclude MPs who have been properly returned to parliament

But I do think there are serious questions about whether the United Kingdom can claim to be a true democracy when the rules are deliberately set up to exclude MPs who have been properly returned to parliament. The oath of loyalty to the King not only excludes republicans, it also insults those many MPs who do not believe a hereditary monarchy is fit for a 21st century democracy.

It will not be high on Starmer’s to-do list, but reform of the 1978 Oaths Act is well overdue, if only as a signal of his commitment to an inclusive parliament. If there is to be any oath of loyalty for MPs, it should be to the people who put them there.