Several UK politicians have been described as embracing a ‘muscular’ form of unionism, which includes taking a hard line against the possibility of constituent parts of the UK leaving the Union.As Iain McLean warns, muscular unionism can look like ‘know your place unionism’ and history has shown that such a muscular approach can backfire and hasten the very secession it seeks to prevent.
The phrase ‘muscular unionism’ is new but the concept is not. As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson called Scottish devolution ‘a disaster north of the border’. Liz Truss said while campaigning for the Conservative leadership that she would ‘ignore’ the ‘attention seeker’, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She was true to her word, never contacting Sturgeon or Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, during her premiership. Lord (David) Frost, who served as a member of Johnson’s Cabinet, recently wrote:
The Scottish “government” is not the government of a state in confederation with England. It is a subordinate entity within the UK, with powers granted to it by the UK government and Parliament, and ultimately subject to the supremacy of that Parliament.
It does indeed sound muscular, but it ended in tears and self-contradiction last time, and there is no reason to expect differently this time. The UK government would be well advised to become a little weedier than PMs Johnson or Truss. Rishi Sunak contacted Sturgeon and Drakeford on his first full day in office as Prime Minister. Is this a hopeful sign?
Before the accession of King Charles III, the Unit published two reports related to the accession of the new King: one on the accession and coronation oaths, and another on the coronation ceremony. Today the Unit has published revised versions of these reports. In this post, co-authors Robert Hazell and Bob Morris outline the reports’ conclusions and discuss how the coming coronation will be on a much smaller scale than the previous one, in a UK that is radically different from the Britain of 1953.
Five years ago we conducted a study of the accession and coronation oaths. These are three religious oaths which the new monarch is required by law to take at or soon after his accession. King Charles has already taken one, the Scottish oath, at the inaugural meeting of his Privy Council. He swore to uphold the Presbyterian church in Scotland in the following words:
I, Charles the Third by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and of Northern Ireland, and of My other Realms and Territories, King, Defender of the Faith, do faithfully promise and swear that I shall inviolably maintain and preserve the Settlement of the True Protestant Religion as established by the laws of Scotland in prosecution of the Claim of Right and particularly an Act intituled an ‘Act for Securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government’ and by the Acts passed in both Kingdoms for the Union of the two Kingdoms, together with the Government, Worship, Discipline, Rights and Privileges of the Church of Scotland: so help me God.
At his first state opening of parliament King Charles will take a second oath, under the Accession Declaration Act, to be a faithful Protestant; and at his coronation he will swear to uphold the rights and privileges of the Church of England. All three oaths are a hangover from an earlier age. Legally speaking none of the oaths are necessary. The Church of Scotland Act 1921 gave full parliamentary recognition to the Church’s status as a national church. The European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 contain strong guarantees of religious freedom. Nor can it be said that the oaths have any effect. Now that the sovereign has long ceased to be head of the executive, it seems odd that the King should be asked to swear to something which he has no power to enforce.
Robert Hazell and Bob Morris have been examining the accession and coronation oaths the Queen’s successor will have to take once her reign comes to an end. Their research on the subject has led to two reports, both of which were published today. In this blogpost, they discuss their conclusions and call for both oaths to be rewritten to reflect a country that has changed significantly since they were last used.
The Constitution Unit has published two reports that look forward to the accession and coronation of the next monarch. This might be thought premature. But because so much has to be decided quickly, within 24 hours of the Queen’s death, it is important to spend time now considering the issues that will arise, before they have to be dealt with in the rush of a new reign. There will be no shortage of critics ready to snipe at the new monarch and their government if anything goes wrong; the more things can be thought through in advance, the better.
On accession the new sovereign has to make three statutory oaths: the Scottish oath, to uphold the Presbyterian Church of Scotland; the Accession Declaration oath, to be a true and faithful Protestant; and the coronation oath, which includes promising to uphold the rights and privileges of the Church of England.
These oaths date originally from 1688-1707, when Catholic Europe was seen as an existential threat. In our more secular and pluralist society, the oaths need to be revised and updated; or dropped altogether.
Because the oaths are statutory, any significant revision would require fresh legislation; as would their repeal. To be in time for the next accession, legislation would need to be passed during the present reign.
Legislation could adapt each oath to its context. In a radical reformulation, the Scottish oath could become an oath about the Union; the Accession Declaration, traditionally made before parliament, could become an oath to uphold the constitution and our laws; and the coronation oath, in a ceremony watched by millions, could be an oath made to the people.
Our report offers three different reformulations of each oath, depending on how radical the government wishes to be. It may not be easy to reach consensus with the established churches, other faith groups, and civil society; ultimately the government has to decide.
If there is not the political will to legislate, the government should consider preparing a statement to give to parliament on accession explaining the historical reasons for the oaths, and how they are to be understood in modern times; with an accompanying briefing for the media.
On Saturday, the world turned on their televisions to watch the marriage ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who are now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Bob Morris offers his views on what the marriage could mean for the monarchy.This is the first in a small series of blogs about some constitutional aspects of the Monarchy. The next is to be published on Wednesday 23 May and will complement two Unit reports on the coronation and accession oaths taken by British monarchs.
‘A family on the throne … brings down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life… A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such, it rivets mankind.’ [Bagehot, 1867]
Everyone will wish the couple well in their life together. Their wedding will have been watched by millions and enhanced the sense of continuity that the British monarchy can convey to an increasingly diverse population. Abroad it will equally delight and intrigue – how is it that a modern state can still indulge such celebrations?Continue reading →