Oaths: on the wrong side of history

In Uncategorized on December 18, 2016 by kmflett


Oliver the Spy: one result of oath taking and secrecy- official spying on radicals before Peterloo in 1819

Sajid Javid has floated the idea of those in public service taking oaths to sign up to British values like democracy and equality before the law.

Most, possibly excluding Nigel Farage,will have no issue in principle with the values. Oaths are more problematic.

As E.P Thompson noted in the Making of the English Working Class oaths had a long history in British society, fundamentally they were part of traditions of secrecy, keeping authority out of the business of private individuals, for one reason or another.

Thompson noted of trade union oaths in the early nineteenth century:

Such oaths had a long ancestry, owing something to freemasonry, something to old guild traditions, and something to commonplace civil ceremonies, such as the burgess oath.

Under conditions of illegality trade unions used oaths to maintain membership and discipline.

The authorities were distinctly unhappy about the lower orders taking oaths. Indeed the matter was central to the transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Thompson argues that the tradition declined rapidly after the Martyrs conviction but in reality those in favour of openly organised democratic trade union organisation, necessary if unions were to become mass organisations, were already ditching oaths.

The oath remained important in official society- for example the swearing in of MPs- until the atheist MP Charles Bradlaugh successfully campaigned for the right to affirm rather than swear an oath.

In short the idea of swearing an oath to something is on the wrong side of history in a democratic society. Mr Javid please note.


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