Evidence suggests it is perfectly possible to combine independence with retaining the monarchy, writes Joyce McMillan
On the letters page of The Scotsman earlier this week, Colin Fox of the Scottish Socialist Party was in thunderous form, as he denounced the SNP’s view that an independent Scotland should keep the Queen as head of state. “You can have a monarchy or a democracy, but not both!” he declared, with passion. It’s a common view among left-wing Scottish nationalists, and indeed among all those in Britain who have had enough of the weird and excessive adulation of royalty that seems to have set in, in parts of the UK body politic, as other time-honoured institutions crumble, and generally blot their copy-books.
As a matter of fact, though, the idea that democracy and monarchy are incompatible just isn’t true; indeed if the Nordic states of north-west Europe represent a possible independent Scotland’s best role models, as small and prosperous countries in our part of the world, then it’s surely worth noting that three out of five of them – Norway, Sweden and Denmark – have a constitutional monarch as head of state, despite being widely regarded as perhaps the most seriously and thoroughly democratic countries on the planet. “Oh, but their monarchies aren’t like ours,” roar the republicans, instantly placing themselves in the same camp as the kind of elderly establishment Tories who maintain that the British royal family possesses some kind of unique magic, owing to its alleged “thousand years of history”.
In fact, though, their monarchies are almost exactly the same as ours; entirely hereditary, contained within a constitution that assigns sovereign power to an elected parliament, and surrounded by a fair degree of pomp, circumstance and wealth, not to mention celebrity gossip. And within the Commonwealth – to which Scotland would presumably continue to belong, after independence – there are several major modern democracies, including Canada, which retain the Queen as head of state, without anyone suggesting that they are not among the world’s leading democracies alongside republics like France, Germany and the United States.
Learning from the experience of other countries, though, has never been a strong suit in British politics; and it is both frustrating and amusing, now, to see that utter indifference to international examples being joyfully extended into Scotland’s independence debate, which often seems to be taking place in such a thundering vacuum that you might imagine no other nation has ever sought its independence, or dealt with consequent issues such as currency, borders, and pension provision. All across Eastern Europe, two decades ago, countries emerged from larger unions and reasserted their independence; some descended into war, but many others achieved the kind of “velvet divorce” that famously took place between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, back in 1993. The entire Commonwealth is made up of countries that began the 20th century as British colonies, and ended it as independent states; and above all, right on our doorstep, there is the example of Ireland, which left the United Kingdom in 1922 and became an independent republic, but nonetheless negotiated free travel and shared voting rights between the two countries, and a currency that remained firmly pegged to the pound sterling, on a one-for-one basis, for more than fifty years after independence.
So why don’t we care about a world full of examples of how independence can be managed, or – for that matter – of how major national regions can carve out a prosperous future within a larger state? In the case of the No campaign for next year’s referendum, the answer is obvious. The ageing establishment grandees who run Better Together are not only drenched in a Westminster culture that regards foreign examples as irrelevant, but wedded to a fear-based strategy under which Scottish independence must always be presented as a weird, unprecedented and uniquely risky notion; companionable chat about how dozens of other countries achieved their independence is not conducive to the levels of fear and uncertainty that Better Together wishes us to feel.
On the Yes side, though, the studied indifference to certain obvious international examples is more difficult to understand. The Yes camp are certainly willing to throw around the idea of Nordic-style social democracy, as the ultimate aim of Scottish independence. Yet scratch the surface, and you still find many Yes supporters digging themselves into constitutional ditches on abstruse matters of principle, getting hot under the collar about the monarchy, responding in kind to empty Westminster bluster about Scotland not being “allowed” to use the pound, ignoring the Irish experience completely, and generally playing the British Establishment’s game of discussing the Anglo-Scottish relationship as if it were unique on the planet.
Yet in the end, our relationship on this island is so far from being unique that almost every smaller nation with a larger neighbour has faced some similar issues, and similar decisions. If some Scottish nationalists fail to grasp that, it is because they have come to mirror the insular and often ill-informed attitudes of the British Establishment they think they oppose; the neurotic particularism that says we on this island are always special, and that no-one else can either understand or advise us.
The other night, for example, on the BBC World Service, I heard a financial expert from New Zealand casually remark that all New Zealand’s banks are guaranteed by the Australian Central Bank, as lender of last resort.
So far as I can see, this is not true; it’s simply that most of the largest banks operating in New Zealand are Australian, and that the two governments tend to act together during a crisis, as they did during the global crash of 2008.
The conversation came as a sharp reminder, though, that in the global village of the 21st century, we are rarely if ever alone with our problems, our dilemmas, or our history. And if the debate on Scottish independence has often been an ill-tempered and introverted one so far, then it’s surely time – as the year turns – for us to broaden our horizons; and to start calling on the experience of other nations across the world, as we seek a new understanding of Scotland’s many possible futures, and of how we can – with a little luck, and a following wind – move peacefully through next year’s referendum, and on to the next stage of our infinitely complex story.