Rather bizarrely, given a busy news agenda, last week I was inundated with letters and emails demanding that the proposal for an ‘equality oath’ should be abandoned.
I am confident that most people will never have heard of it, and I confess that it rather took me by surprise.
The genesis of this proposal is the review on community cohesion published by Dame Louise Casey last year. This reported that ethnic segregation is increasing and that we need to do more to ensure that immigrants integrate fully into British society.
The review identified a need to establish a set of values around which people from all different backgrounds can unite. To this end, it suggested the introduction of an integration oath on arrival for immigrants intending to settle in Britain, but the review also identified a need to increase standards of leadership and integrity in public office, suggesting that this could be done by developing a new oath for holders of public office.
The lobby against the proposal is promoted by evangelical Christians concerned that the oath may be used as a means of excluding from public office anyone who has religious reservations about the validity of same sex marriage.
I think this is somewhat implausible given our fundamental commitment to freedom of religion. To be fair to their suspicions however, oaths have certainly been used to exclude religious dissenters in the past.
The Test Act of 1673 required an oath not just from office holders, but also from entrants to professions and universities. It was in response to Charles II’s willingness to move on from the lingering divisions of the civil war and the years of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. In 1672 he used his prerogative powers in the Declaration of Indulgence to remove disadvantages and restrictions placed on non-conformists and Catholics. Parliament’s response a year later proved that there was still no mood for forgiveness and that bygones were to remain top priority. The Act required that applicants give ‘assent and consent to all and everything contained in, and proscribed by the Book of Common Prayer’. Clearly, the only shared value around which Parliament believed the country should unite, was to be full membership of the Church of England.
This had profound social consequences. The exclusion of non-conformists from public office, professions and universities led them to concentrate on commerce and industry, with their own schools to nurture them. It is for this reason that so many of our historic successful companies were founded in the non-conformist tradition, for example Barclays, Wilkinsons, Courtaulds, and Cadburys.
The Government will respond to Dame Louise’s recommendations in the spring. Notwithstanding the importance of equal treatment under the law as a constitutional principle, I would prefer the oath to have a rather wider compass. My preference would be a simple oath of allegiance to the reigning monarch who, after all, sums up all our national values. MPs and members of the armed forces swear such an oath, so I can’t see why every other holder of public office shouldn’t do so too, and I doubt that evangelicals will object to that.