A Few Words On The Swearing-in Of Ministers

As I watched President Biden’s inauguration, I thought about how the advent of a new ministry in the UK receives very little fanfare. Aside from a photograph of the new Prime Minister with the Queen, the installation of a new government takes place behind closed doors with the only public records of the event being the Court Circular and the Orders section of the Privy Council website. Some might argue that this is precisely how it should be, but I think it’s a missed opportunity.

Other Commonwealth Realms have public ceremonies associated with the formation of a new government. In Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, ministers’ families are in attendance and the proceedings are broadcast to the nation and the world.[1] In principle, there’s no reason why the UK couldn’t do something similar. Indeed, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales already take their oaths of office in public.[2] The fact that British ministers take office at a meeting of the Privy Council needn’t be an impediment. Privy Councils have been recorded for public viewing before.[3]

Making the swearing-in of a new ministry a public event would help illustrate the relationship between the dignified and the efficient parts of the constitution. In my experience, people are often surprised to learn that the Queen is involved with the appointment of Cabinet ministers. They assume it’s simply something the Prime Minister does (it doesn’t help that Downing Street’s own announcements sometimes obscure Her Majesty’s role in the process).[4] But if the public could watch the swearing-in of a new ministry, they’d be able to see the Sovereign’s constitutional role in living color.

The Queen is said to have remarked “I have to be seen to be believed.” Showing her role in the installation of a government helps make that happen.

[1] In the case of Canada and Australia, the swearing-in of a new ministry is generally publicized at both the federal and provincial/state level.

[2] Unlike British ministers or the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, the First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland don’t take the oath of allegiance or the oath of office. Instead, they take the same Pledge of Office as other members of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

[3] It’s worth remembering that Council meetings are purely formal affairs without any deliberation.

[4] Sometimes announcements mention that the Queen has approved the minister’s appointment, sometimes they don’t.

This entry was posted in Monarchy in Britain, The Monarchy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.