A Radical Approach to Anachronisms

One 19th-century MP shared the same frustrations with parliamentary procedures as the new leader of the Labour party.

David Nash | Published in 04 Nov 2015

Forcibly removed: Bradlaugh satirised in Punch, 1880.

The tradition of kneeling before the monarch as part of the process of induction to Britain’s Privy Council reminds us of historical moments where apparent anachronisms of procedure carry important messages. Way back in the 1880s the atheist and radical MP Charles Bradlaugh attempted to make the same argument about the religious nature of the parliamentary oath as the new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. Bradlaugh was a radical firebrand who had once supported the First International when it had met in London and who was unexpectedly elected on an overwhelming mandate from his constituency. A staunch, if constitutional republican, Bradlaugh had been accused of plotting to burn down London. While these accusations were damning, it was his atheism that led him to lock horns with the British Establishment and the arcane remnants of its governmental procedures. 

Bradlaugh sought the rights of citizenship for all unbelievers and hoped, when elected to Parliament, to enact the change to allow atheists to serve the country as freely as Christians. This quest became a reality when he was introduced to the radical voters of Northampton and eventually elected as their second member in 1880. Bradlaugh, after pointing out that he was unable to take a religious oath, sought to affirm, as exempt groups were allowed to in court and Parliament. When Bradlaugh requested to do so he was questioned by the Serjeant-at-Arms as to whether he was a Jew, a Quaker or a Moravian – the religious groups for whom exemption from swearing religious oaths had been accepted as a matter of conscience. When he replied in the negative he was then turned away having failed to fulfill any of the criteria under which oaths or affirmations allowed individual MPs to enter Parliament. His request to then go back and take the oath instead was also stymied by procedure because he had already refused it and Parliament’s officers in charge of such situations, with some justification, believed it was impossible to backtrack and take an oath you had already refused.

This was a considerable mess that left the government deeply uncomfortable and Bradlaugh (and importantly his constituents) out in the cold. Like Corbyn, throughout his struggles Bradlaugh never forgot his duty and loyalty to the considerable constituency who had elected him and he believed were counting on results from his radical stance and message. In Bradlaugh’s case they were to be sorely tried as his frequent attempts to present himself at the bar of the House of Commons to take either the oath or make an affirmation were persistently rebuffed. He was expelled, and indeed forcibly removed, from the House, which resulted in a celebrated Punch cartoon. He was also, on one other memorable occasion, imprisoned overnight in the clock tower of the House of Commons for showing contempt for the House and its procedures. 

All this degenerated into a damaging game of cat and mouse, with Bradlaugh regularly reselected to seek a mandate from his constituency (no less than four times) and finding himself with a seat he could not take until Parliament changed its attitudes and procedures. The affair was further complicated by an extreme group of the Tory opposition (known as the Fourth Party) who used Bradlaugh and what he represented as a convenient stick with which to beat Gladstone and the governing Liberal Party, who had a member they could not use or allow to take his seat. The ruling rapidly began to look an anachronism in a society that was supposed to be tolerant and pragmatic; liberal virtues that the government stood for. Eventually Bradlaugh was allowed to take the oath in 1886. Nonetheless some who had supported him in his darkest days felt betrayed. Why was he prepared to take a religious oath, the very thing he had stood against, the cause for which he had marshalled the indignant rage of progressive England behind him? The answer was simple and subtle. Bradlaugh was trying to demonstrate that the oath was merely a formality and it did not matter what individuals actually believed. Many before him, some sitting on the benches staring down at the spectacle he provided, themselves had beliefs that were unorthodox, to say the least. As they paid no heed to this, neither should Bradlaugh. A small insignificance had been made to be a large issue upon which hung radical and political reputations. Yet by denouncing its anachronism and the need for change, and indeed its very smallness, it showed that petty barriers could become large and significant ones – unless an individual took some kind of stand however well or badly it was received.