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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Oath proposal is a departure from British values

The suggestion from Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid that civil servants and other holders of public office should swear an oath to British values is the sort of proposal one would expect to hear from a foaming-at-the-mouth, Tory back bencher, not a mainstream cabinet minister.

What makes the idea even more sinister is that Javid wants it to apply to elected politicians as well as civil servants. Given that it is those politicians who would be expected to influence and frame 'British values' through policies that they have put to the electorate and for which they have a mandate, the proposal suddenly starts to resemble an attempt to interfere with the democratic process, to rule out people with particular views from seeking elected office.

Have we really slipped into a world where such autocratic views have become so acceptable that they can be advocated by a senior mainstream politician, who apparently has no understanding of the democratic process which put him where he is and which he has served for so long?

The irony is, of course that these so-called 'values' include democracy, equality and freedom of speech, when the very concept undermines and destroys all three.

And it is not just the application of such an oath to elected officials that is abhorrent. It is an insult to everybody who might be required to take it.

The BBC says that the oath will have to be taken by every new recruit in the public sector, including councillors, school governors and civil servants and that it may have to be read out loud before starting the role. This could extend to those working in the NHS and the BBC.

This is a crude attempt to silence criticism of the government, to restrict basic rights such as the right to strike, to suppress trade unionism, to enable the state to override the neutrality of the BBC by better controlling its own news coverage, and to prevent 'unpatriotic' whistleblowing by public sector employees on government failures.

All of these activities could be deemed to be contrary to 'British values' if a government deemed them to be so, and could lead to dismissal or worse.

The real sting though is what this proposal says about the Tory party's view of public servants. Without fail these people are dedicated, skilled workers, committed to delivering high quality services to the public.

This is no longer enough for the Tory Government. They would rather put 'British values' ahead of those qualities. In doing so they insult every one of those people, who work long hours for inadequate pay because of their dedication to public service.
Indeed, it's not even clear that what's being suggested would be lawful under the Equality Act, 2010, which prohibits discrimination because of religion or belief.
Back to Henry 8th and Thomas More. Next Javid will want a Star Chamber.
We've already been through this awful episode of intolerance.

Between 1661 and 1828/9 everyone in authority had to swear an oath of loyalty to the King and to the Established Church. Those who refused were punished.

The Corporation Act of 1661 excluded from membership of town corporations all those who were not prepared to take the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England. The Test Act passed in 1673 imposed the same test upon holders of civil or military office.

So -for over 150 years Roman Catholics, Jews, Unitarians, Presbyterians, Quakers, Congregationalists, Baptists and Methodists all became second class citizens in their own country - they could not become MPs, members of the professions, judges or magistrates, or hold army commissions. They could not attend universities, and were effectively regarded as being traitors or potential traitors. In 1828 both the Corporation and Test Acts were repealed by Parliament. Roman Catholics were prevented from holding public office until the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Jewish emancipation took longer and was not fully achieved until 1890.

We are in grave danger of repeating this terrible mistake. This awful proposal must be stopped now.

I seem to recall as a new community councillor having to sign an undertaking to adhere to certain standards, some of which could have clashed with my freedom to act on behalf of my constituents. "Typical Labour control-freakery" I thought at the time. It is depressing to see that a party that used to stand up for individual freedoms is going down the same authoritarian route.

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