There's something strange in this pledge of allegiance

'Secular society has no equivalent to the oath, the breaking of which would bring divine punishment'
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The Independent Online

It's a pretty pallid thing, the pledge which new citizens would be required to make at the ceremonies planned by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary. The statement begins with an "either/or": "I swear by almighty God (or do solemnly and sincerely affirm)". That is why, I suppose, it is called a pledge rather than an oath. Secular society cannot find an equivalent to the oath, with its absolute commitment and its implication that breaking it would bring divine punishment.

Mr Blunkett's text employs a familiar rhetorical device to achieve solemnity, the use of paired words, where the difference in meaning, if any, is usually slight. Thus we have "solemnly and sincerely", "loyalty and allegiance", the Queen's "heirs and successors", "rights and freedoms" and "duties and obligations". One of these phrases, though, is the odd one out. For it does embody a significant difference. That is the reference to the Queen's heirs and successors.

It points to a rarely noticed constitutional reality. It has not been put there merely to guard against the remote possibility that the House of Windsor will die out. This hardly seems likely as the Queen has four children and numerous grandchildren. It acknowledges Parliament's ability abruptly to change the succession. That happened in 1688 when the Dutch ruler, William of Orange, was invited to replace James II. The abdication of Edward VIII is the most recent example.

Parliament's absolute control of the monarchy is also implicit in the arrangements which click into place on the death of the sovereign. The first step is the holding of what is called an Accession Council. Its task is to authorise a statement proclaiming the new monarch. Several newspapers last week published the proclamation used exactly 50 years ago on the death of George VI. Its antique wording indicates that there is a pause, however short, while the members of the Accession Council decide that they will indeed proclaim the established heir. It is not, therefore, a absolute constitutional necessity that Prince Charles becomes king on the death of the Queen.

Something else in Mr Blunkett's wording is strange. New citizens are asked to swear or affirm their loyalty and allegiance first to the Queen, her heirs and successors and then, after that, to the United Kingdom. This goes back a thousand years. Allegiance to one's monarch long predates attachment to a particular country. Allegiance has among its dictionary meanings "the relation or duty of a liegeman to his liege lord", in other words the owing of services to a superior in return for protection. This ordering of the pledge, first the monarch, then the nation, is essentially feudal, yet it reappears in a white paper written long after the Middle Ages.

The American oath of allegiance has different resonances. It requires first that new citizens should "absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty". It then asks much more than Mr Blunkett dares to do. It demands that the US constitution and laws should be defended against all enemies, foreign and domestic. New citizens are required a promise to bear arms, or to perform non-combatant service or perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by law.

And it ends with a phrase full of suspicion: "I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion." These are the muscular terms suitable for a young country, the fight for independence fresh in the memory, embattled, fearful. Yet suddenly, when least expected, in the light of 11 September, the old words appear appropriate again.

The British pledge as drafted is pallid in another way, in its expression. The proclamation of the Queen's succession in 1952 retained the magnificence of the best period of English prose. It reads as if the original version was written by Archbishop Cranmer himself in the 16th century. It began: "Whereas it hath pleased Almighty God to call to his mercy our late Sovereign Lord King George the Sixth of blessed and glorious memory by whose decease the Crown is solely and rightfully come to the High and Mighty Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, we therefore..." and so it rolls and thunders on. If only we could summon up such language today. Two hundred years ago William Blake could have found the right words, but nobody today wants Blakean sentiments: "I will not cease from Mental Fight/ Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand/ Till we have built Jerusalem/ in England's green and pleasant land." Kipling, too: "Land of our birth, we pledge to thee..."

Let it not even be called a pledge. For me the word continues to bring to mind the temperance cause. To keep the pledge was to abide by one's undertaking to abstain from alcohol. Let the words be thrilling. Wanted by the Home Office: another Cranmer, or Blake or Kipling, a writer able to compose a vow suitable for use at citizenship ceremonies.

aws@globalnet.co.uk

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