Ruud Koole is not, what I would call, an activist. For one thing the man is a professor here in Leiden and we do not usually recruit our professors from the ranks of the Rote Armee Fraktion. For another, Koole is a member of the First Chamber of Parliament which, sometimes characterised as chambre de réflexion, is something of a household name for – what Sir Humphrey Appleby in the British sitcom Yes Prime Minister once described as – ‘firm, masterly inactivity’. However with the coronation – or rather investiture – of the new King coming up on April 30, there was a bit of a fuss last week about Koole, together with 15 other MPs, refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the new King.
Koole’s explanation, that he thought swearing to uphold the rights of the King was outdated, was severely criticised. It was pointed out that the oath was mandatory. MPs who have problems with that should at least try to change the law. By refusing to obey a law they disagreed with, they would set a bad example.
Now this is something of an odd argument because the great majority of Parliament apparently had no problem with the oath. The chances for a very small number of MPs to be able to initiate a change of law are very marginal indeed. But this is probably no different from a law on, say, the use of hard drugs. Should anyone be allowed to have a go at heroine just because they are not in any position to change the law?
No of course not. But there is a basic difference. The law requiring MPs to vow to uphold the monarch’s rights – just like the law requiring their expression of allegiance when taking office – commits those MPs to a certain form of government: the monarchy in its current form. A commitment like that may not be problematic for those who are satisfied with our present constitutional arrangements, but it might be for the growing number of politicians considering changes to the monarchy (whether they are republicans or merely contemplating a more ceremonial role for the King). The question these politicians face is thus: does the pledge hinder me morally in this pursuit? This pursuit being of course, the legitimate exercise of legislative power.
Now the answer to this question may obviously be negative. But it can only be so if the MP in question either takes his vows very lightly, or if he interprets them in such a way that they amount to practically nothing or something totally different. That is, for instance, what the European Court of Human Rights did in the British case of McGuinness in 1999:
‘the requirement that elected representatives to the House of Commons take an oath of allegiance to the reigning monarch can be reasonably viewed as an affirmation of loyalty to the constitutional principles which support (…) the workings of representative democracy.’
I am not at all sure why an oath of allegiance to a king should be reasonably regarded as the ultimate sign of support for representative democracy. The Americans for one will not subscribe to such a view. Their war of independence was apparently totally unnecessary. Moreover, swearing allegiance to a democratically elected Head of State such as a president, would – under that line of reasoning – be even more democratic. So why not swear allegiance to President Lukashenko of Belarus? Why not take an oath on the Pope as a clear token of our constitutional commitment to the separation of religion and the State?
No I would say that Koole is right. Much safer to let MPs pledge their allegiance to the Constitution only. That, as that same European Court noted in 2010, would mean loyalty of politicians amounting to neither more nor less than the requirement that any change is pursued in accordance with the Law.
Now that would be a great pledge. The rest belongs to the realms of history.