HC Deb 13 February 1866 vol 181 cc453-9

Acts read;—considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)


said, that the subject he was about to introduce was one which, like several others that had been adverted to that evening, had been frequently brought under the notice of the House. A considerable discussion had taken place on it only so recently as last Session. He did not propose, therefore, to trouble the House at any length, but should reserve a fuller statement of the objects of the Bill for the second reading, provided as he hoped that the House allowed him to bring it in. But he would state shortly the purposes of the Bill. There were now two distinct oaths taken by Members of the House; one by Protestants and the other by Roman Catholics. The Protestant oath was framed in 1858, when an Act was passed consolidating the three oaths, which, previous to that period, were taken separately, of allegiance, abjuration, and supremacy. With regard to the part of the oath which relates to allegiance to the Crown, which was common to both Protestants and Roman Catholics, no one could refuse for a moment to admit that it was a very proper oath to be taken by every Member of the House. He did not think there was a Member of the House who would not take that oath willingly. But, with reference to the second part of the oath taken alike by Protestants and Roman Catholics—the oath of abjuration—he thought they would all agree that the time had come when it could and ought to be dispensed with. It was first required to be taken in the reign of William III., on the death of James H., and the assumption by the son of James II. of the title of King of England, when in fact a real danger menaced the Throne of this kingdom. Rather, however, than give his own opinion of this part of the oath, he would quote the words of a most eminent authority—Lord Lyndhurst—and which were spoken in 1858. He said— The object of this oath had long ceased. The descendants of the Pretender had long been extinct. What, then, was the course which every man of common sense would consider ought, under those circumstances, to be pursued? Simply to repeal the oath framed for a particular purpose, and the utility of which was now at an end. The latter part of the oath taken by Protestants, embodying the negative part of the oath of supremacy in which the jurisdiction of the Pope, or of any other foreign prince in this country is denied, appeared to him to be entirely useless. He could not see the necessity of any Protestant Member of the House being called upon for a declaration that the Pope had no spiritual or ecclesiastical jurisdiction in this country. It was really an absurdity in the case of Protestant Members, none of whom can be suspected of holding such an opinion. As it respects, therefore, a Protestant Member, the oath of allegiance seems to be quite sufficient. As to the oath taken by Roman Catholics, the same reasons which he had given in the case of the Protestants, as to that part of it which required the abjuration of the Pretender, applied equally to them. There were other portions of the Roman Catholic oath framed in 1829 as a security against any danger arising from the admission of Roman Catholics to Parliament, which formed the subject of a great deal of discussion last Session—into these he did not wish now to enter or to invite debate. He concurred at that time with the right hon. Member for the county of Limerick (Mr. Monsell), who introduced a Bill on that subject, that portions of the oath were needlessly offensive to Roman Catholics, and that there was not the slightest use in retaining them, and that other parts were ambiguous, and open to doubtful and complicating construction; and, therefore, he supported the proposal made by his right hon. Friend last Session for their omission from the oath. The hon. and learned Member for Belfast (Sir Hugh Cairns) acquiesced in those omissions, so far as they embraced those words which were obviously offensive. I do not, therefore, anticipate any difference of opinion as to them. Other parts of the oath related to the settlement of property and the maintenance of the Established Church, and of the Protestant religion. With regard to these he had only to say that in his opinion no real security for the Established Church or the Protestant religion was given by their retention, and he thought that we ought not, needlessly, to place our Roman Catholic fellow subjects, as Members of the Legislature, on a footing different from that we ourselves occupy. As to the denial of the jurisdiction or authority of any foreign prince or prelate, Roman Catholics were, for obvious reasons, exempted from the denial of spiritual authority, and while it seemed absurd to require this denial only from those who have no concern in it, the necessity for denying civil or temporal authority is obviated by the oath of allegiance, and he (Sir George Grey) was not aware that any Roman Catholic would hold that the Pope exercised any civil or temporal jurisdiction within this country. In fact, the person who would assert this would fail in his allegiance, and might bring himself within the penalties of treason. The opinion which he (Sir George Grey) had expressed last Session was very generally concurred in—namely, that there should be one uniform oath for all. If there was one general oath, they might limit it to the first part of the oath taken without hesitation both by Protestants and Roman Catholics, which would be substan- tially the oath of allegiance to the Crown. The Members professing the Jewish religion sat now in that House not by absolute right but by sufferance, the result of a compromise adopted to terminate a long struggle, but it was impossible not to see that that arrangement must be temporary. Those Gentlemen had sat there for some years, and it would be absurd to ask if any danger had arisen to the Crown, the Church, or the Constitution, from Jews sitting in that House. They had taken part, with credit to themselves, in the discussions in the House, and had performed their duty with integrity and ability. He (Sir George Grey) thought the time was come when the Members professing the Jewish religion should be admitted to all the privileges which were enjoyed by the Members of other religious denominations. By the adoption of the measure he proposed Members would be relieved from the necessity, on coming to the table after a general election, of ranging themselves in three divisions when taking the oaths. Let no man be asked any question as to his religion, but let him take his seat in the House if qualified to sit there, in the opinion of those who sent him there, on taking the oath of allegiance as a loyal subject of the Crown. The Bill which he proposed to introduce would be a short one, repealing the present oaths, and providing that the oath to be taken shall be as follows:— I A. B., do swear that I will bear faithful and true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, and defend her to the utmost of my power against all attempts and conspiracies whatever that shall be made against her crown, power, and dignity. The right hon. Baronet concluded by moving— That the Chairman be directed to move the House, that leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to Parliamentary oaths.


said, that considering the nature of the Bill which the right hon. Baronet had proposed, the tone of his speech was singularly smooth. He seemed to treat his proposal as though it dealt with matters of but slight importance—matters almost of indifference. No one who heard the right hon. Gentleman could, from his tone or his manner, have believed that he was proposing the disturbance of a great constitutional settlement. He (Mr. Newdegate) did not intend to take the sense of the House at present on the subject-matter of the intended Bill, though divisions bad often been taken at the outset of proposals, which, as in the present case, would destroy a settlement that had been adopted, after a controversy upon this subject which had lasted eleven years. It was eight years since the Oaths Consolidation Act was passed, and Parliament was now asked, after so short an interval, to disturb the settlement then made with respect to Parliamentary oaths. He held in his hand a pamphlet which had been circulated among the Members of the House. It was entitled Brief Suggestions as to the Oaths taken by Members of Parliament and Others—Her Majesty's Subjects. The tone of the pamphlet was similar to that adopted by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department. The substance was much the same as that of the right hon. Baronet's speech. There was no author's name appended to the pamphlet, and it was printed for private circulation. He (Mr. Newdegate) almost came to the conclusion that it emanated from the right hon. Gentleman. If the pamphlet did not emanate from the right hon. Gentleman, perhaps he had picked out such portions as he thought might be used in inducing Members of the House to accede to his proposal. He (Mr. Newdegate) would ask the attention of the House to the few observations he was about to offer on the subject of the Oaths Bill. It was quite true that the primary object of the oath taken by Members was to obtain from them a declaration of allegiance. No one had as yet been bold enough to propose the abolition of the oath of allegiance. The allegiance of Englishmen, however, was not simply the allegiance of subjects to an absolute Sovereign, but the allegiance of citizens to a Sovereign who was bound by certain conditions as to the administration and exercise of her power. The right hon. Gentleman asked, "Why not sweep away the oath of abjuration, now that the Pretender and his lineal descendants are no more?" But the right hon. Gentleman took care never to touch upon the fact that that oath limits the succession to the Crown to the descendants of the Princess Sophie of Hanover, being Protestants. Now, one condition of our allegiance is that the Sovereign shall be a Protestant. He might be told that that great advantage is secured by the Act of Settlement. But if it was thought necessary still to retain the declaration of allegiance, why was it now sought to deprive the Protestant subjects of Her Majesty of the advantage enjoyed and the security conferred by the public recognition of the fact that the Sovereign must be a Protestant? Then the right hon. Gentleman proceeded to the oath of supremacy, and proposed to sweep away the negative portions of it. Perhaps hon. Gentlemen were not aware of what was contained in those negative portions. The man who took the oath condemned and rejected the pretensions of any foreign Power whatsoever, by whomsoever pretended rightfully to exercise any authority, ecclesiastical or temporal, spiritual or civil, within these realms. That was no slight security to abandon. The concession of the right hon. Gentleman was no slight concession to propose. He would not detain the House by going into the provisions of the Roman Catholic oath which it was proposed to repeal, since that subject had been not long since debated. Let it suffice to remind the House that it contained declarations to be made on the part of Roman Catholics that they would not use the power or privileges to which they might become entitled by virtue of the functions or offices to which they were admitted for the disturbance of the rights of property or the rights of the Church of England within these realms. He would ask whether, at the present time, when the Fenian conspiracy was at work in Ireland, when they all rejoiced to see many Roman Catholics proving by their conduct that they abide by the declaration contained in their oath that they will not sanction the disturbance of the settlement of property—he would ask whether this was a fitting and appropriate opportunity for absolving them from this public recognition of the sanctity of property? Hon. Members should remember that their oaths included and recognized, not merely the sovereignty of the Queen, but the rights of the subject, the sanctity of property, and the rights and privileges of the Established Church. If there were Members of that House who would disturb these sacred portions of our law and constitution, were they men in whose favour the House would abrogate the provisions of those oaths which had been taken willingly, cordially, and ex animo by every Member of that House within the last ten days, and for so many years past? He might ask whether the attitude of the Papacy and its agents in this country at present was such as would commend this proposal to the approbation of the House? Why, it was but last week that Dr. Manning preached a sermon at the Oratory hard by in laudation of St. Thomas, as they styled him. [Laughter.] Hon. Members laughed; perhaps they did not know whom Dr. Manning meant by St. Thomas. Why, it was no other than Thomas A' Becket—an Archbishop of Canterbury who resisted the laws of this country, and who lost his life in consequence of his rebelling against the constitutions of Clarendon—constitutions passed 700 years ago by our Roman Catholic ancestors, to guard the freedom and independence of this country against the intrusion of a foreign jurisdiction—that of the Papaoy—laws passed for the very same object and purpose for which the negative declarations in the oath of supremacy were now retained, and against which, in the very sermon to which he had alluded, Dr. Manning protested, and urged all whom he could influence to rebel. He would not pursue the subject further. He would only say that the oaths—great part of which the Government now sought to destroy—represented a settlement established by Parliament only eight years ago, after a struggle of eleven years. Under existing circumstances, it was not becoming in Her Majesty's Ministers to propose to disturb that settlement; indeed, it was scarcely decent.

Motion agreed to.

Resolved, That the Chairman be directed to more the House, that leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Law relating to Parliamentary Oaths.

Resolution reported.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir GEORGE GREY, and Mr. CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 13.]

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