Oaths and Affirmations

Any MP wishing to take their seat in the Commons has by law to either swear an oath or make a solemn affirmation of allegiance to the Crown. After this June’s General Election, 483 of Parliament’s 650 MPs, three quarters of the whole, chose to swear their oath of allegiance on a religious text (Christian or other faith). The option to affirm, for those MPs not wanting to involve God in their declarations of allegiance, was taken up by 160 MPs.

Prime Minister Theresa May swearing the parliamentary oath whilst holding the King James Bible, June 14th 2017

While swearing in habits might give some general insight into trends of religious and cultural affiliation, they don’t help us to pinpoint with exact precision numbers of the faithful on the green benches. Over half of all MPs, 378 in total, chose to swear an oath of allegiance on the King James Bible, but that may say more about tradition and precedent than about personal Christian commitment. Historically the option to affirm instead of swear on a religious text was as much about providing conscientious alternatives for the religious as well as for atheists, and choosing to affirm instead of swear is still practised by a small number of MPs of Christian and other faiths (both Sikh MPs affirmed, whilst one MP affirmed whilst holding the King James Bible). Even with those caveats, it’s possible to notice some broad trends.

One of the most striking differences is between Conservative and Labour MPs. 21 of the 319 Conservative MPs (6.6%) chose to affirm instead of swearing on a religious text, though the figure for Labour was 107 of its 260 Members (41%). The proportion affirming was higher for the SNP (68.6%) and it stood at a third for the LibDems, with 4 of their 12 MPs. Those figures are reflected when it comes to the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet. Of the 27 MPs attending Cabinet 26 swore the oath and one affirmed; for the 30 members of the Shadow Cabinet the figures were 14 and 16 respectively.

Looking at the new intake of MPs the proportion who chose to swear on a religious text was lower, at 63.6%, than the proportion for the whole House. That could either be a sign of decreasing religious affiliation in the new generation, or a consequence of half the new Members being Labour, statistically more likely to affirm.

Men were more likely to swear on a religious text (79.5%) than women (63.3%), and within the United Kingdom only in Scotland was there a majority of MPs who opted to affirm instead of swear (54.2% to 45.7%, respectively).

Commons Speaker John Bercow, making the solemn affirmation

Of those not swearing on the King James Bible or choosing to affirm, the next most popular option was swearing on the (Roman Catholic) Jerusalem Bible, chosen by 41 Members, with the New Testament and the Welsh language Bible both being selected by 13 Members each. A further 13 MPs also chose to swear on the Koran, and 13 on the Old Testament (with 7 of that number selecting the version in Hebrew). 5 swore on the Gaelic language Bible, 3 on the Book of Mormon and 3 on the Bhagavad Gita. One MP chose to swear on the Dhammapada. (These figures were obtained by observing the swearing in process that took place over several days from the 14th June and which were televised on the parliament website).

OathsandAffirmations2017

How does this compare with previous parliaments? It is hard to tell, since the parliamentary authorities appear not to collate or publish statistics on swearing and affirmation. The House of Commons Library in a 2016 briefing paper noted from the recording of proceedings in 2015, that 478 Members (74%) took the oath and 168 Members (26%) made an affirmation, little different from 2017.

There is no option for Members to swear an oath to any other body or person than the Crown, though 11 MPs (9 Labour, 2 SNP) preceded their oaths and affirmations with statements that they declared allegiance only in order to serve their constituents, to whom they gave their primary loyalty. As Republic have highlighted, a further handful also commented after that they regretted the lack of an option to make an oath or affirmation to their constituents rather than the Queen.

Unsurprisingly the video of proceedings revealed that there were great differences in the attitude and approach of MPs towards the administration of the oath and affirmation (this sketch by the Telegraph’s Michael Deacon gives an impression). Doubtless some approach the parliamentary oath as carrying little meaning beyond the administrative. A few swore who had previously affirmed, and vice-versa. But with a plethora of options now available outside the default, those choosing alternative Bibles and other religious texts at the Table of the House, are more likely to be asserting a religious (or non-religious) identity than others.

by Richard Chapman, Head of Parliamentary Affairs

See also:

2016 briefing paper from the House of Commons Library on the Parliamentary Oath.

BBC News Magazine, 20/5/15, ‘The difference between ‘affirmation’ and ‘oath’’

An MP is unable to take their seat in Parliament until he or she has either sworn an oath of allegiance or made an affirmation of loyalty to the Crown. The procedure is short and simple and takes place immediately after a General Election in the days between the election of the Speaker and the Queen’s Speech. Each Member, beginning with the Speaker, the father of the House, the Prime Minister, Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet, approaches the Table of the House where a Clerk asks them whether they wish to swear or affirm. Those wishing to swear are then invited to choose one of the religious texts laid on the Table of the House.

The usual practice is then to hold the text whilst repeating the oath (though there are some variations):

“I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.”

For those who choose to affirm the wording of the solemn affirmation is:

“I do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm, That I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law.”