The municipal elections are fast approaching, and four towns are facing a
conflict between democratic and legal rights concerning the status of mayoral
The High Court has ruled that while a person may be barred
from serving as mayor due to allegations of serious legal misdemeanors, that
person retains the right to stand as a mayoral candidate. The court says it
cannot intervene in this matter and the electorate can exercise its right to
vote for whomever it chooses. Or, as the attorney-general is reported to have
said in one case, the candidate may be unfit for re-election, but we cannot
legally stop him from running for the position.
As a person is innocent
in law until found guilty, it seems that voters on election day will also, among
their other choices, have to face the dilemma of whether or not to give the
benefit of doubt. Is this an Israeli phenomenon or could it happen elsewhere?
The British have faced similar legal tangles in respect to parliamentary
The best known case is that of Charles Bradlaugh, an atheist
and pro-feminist social reformer. He was elected to represent the East Midlands
town of Northampton as a Liberal Member of the British Parliament in the year
1880, but was prevented from sitting as an MP until 1886 due to the laws then in
place. MPs were required to take an oath that included the words “upon the true
faith of a Christian.”
Concessions to the law had previously been made to
Catholics in 1829 and to other Christian sects such as Quakers in 1833, and even
to Jews in 1858, but parliament made no concessions to atheists until 1888.
Bradlaugh had other problems. In 1877, he ,together with Annie Besant, a leading
women’s rights activist, were indicted for publishing a book promoting birth
control which was considered licentious at the time.
They were found
guilty but the case was dismissed on appeal.
The Northampton electorate
did not accept the parliamentary rulings and re-elected Charles Bradlaugh five
times. In 1881, 1882, 1883 and 1884, he was ejected from the House each time. It
is said that when once he offered to take the oath, he was prevented on the
basis that as an atheist, his oath would not be sincere. Finally, after being
re-elected again in 1885, he was not ejected from the House because the Speaker
(despite the law) refused to hear objections and Bradlaugh took the oath by
affirmation, and took his seat as an MP.
He remained an active Member of
Parliament until his death in 1891.
It is interesting to note that after
the passing of the more liberal Oaths Act of 1888, the House of Commons repented
and resolved, unanimously, that all records of its previous votes for
Bradlaugh’s expulsion be deleted. Sadly, he was not present on that occasion and
he died three days later without ever learning of the Commons’
Jews suffered similar disabilities until 1858 when an Act was
passed that allowed them to take the oath without the words “upon the true faith
of a Christian.” Lionel de Rothschild was elected as a Member of Parliament by
voters in the City of London in 1847 but was not allowed to take his seat until
1858 even though he was re-elected in 1849, 1852 and 1857. He became the first
David Salomons was elected as MP for Greenwich in 1851 but he
also was not allowed to sit in the House of Commons. Nevertheless he insisted on
taking his seat and as a consequence he was ejected and fined 500 pounds
sterling, no small amount then.
(Bradlaugh also suffered similar fines,
that have stayed at the same nominal figure to this day).
re-elected for Greenwich in 1859 and served as an MP until his death in 1873. In
1835 he was elected Sheriff of the City of London but was unable to take that
post until the Christian references in the required oath were removed by law
later that year. Salomons was elected Lord Mayor of London in 1855 by which time
the oath for that post had been amended to allow him to serve.
Members of Parliament have always had problems.
In 1919 when Southern
Ireland was still a province of the UK, some Sinn Féin candidates were elected
to the London House of Commons, but they refused to swear allegiance to the
British crown and instead set themselves up as the first Dáil of the “Republic
Sinn Féin MPs, elected in Northern Ireland, still refuse to
take their seats in the London House of Commons as they believe that all of
Ireland should be an independent republic.
Voters, in a constituency
where the candidate is unable to take his or her seat in parliament, are not
completely disenfranchised. MPs who do not take up their seats may act on behalf
of their constituents by having access to ministers, although they will suffer
restrictions regarding many other parliamentary services.
the House of Commons Speaker’s May 1997 statement, “Any Member who fails to take
the oath or to make the affirmation that is required by law and who then votes
or sits during any debate after the election of the Speaker is subject to a
penalty of 500 pounds sterling on each occasion and his or her seat is
automatically vacated. In 1924 one of my predecessors ruled that any such Member
could not receive a salary and this regulation also applies to
The conflict between democratic and legal rights is not
uniquely Israeli, it is universal.The writer is the Author of From here
to Obscurity and Gold Ducats and Devilry Afoot.
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