Joyce McMillan: Is monarchy losing impartiality?

The Queen has 'risen above' politics since her accession in 1953 ' is that edifice beginning to crumble? Picture: PA

The Queen has 'risen above' politics since her accession in 1953 ' is that edifice beginning to crumble? Picture: PA

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IS THE monarchy losing its famed, and rightly so, impartiality in the face of the SNP’s surge, asks Joyce McMillan

You may love the SNP, or hate them; or you may, like me, rate them as a genuine would-be social democratic party, who often talk a much better game than they play.

It would surely take a heart of stone, though – or one made of unusually timid and obsequious stuff – not to derive a certain satisfaction from the sheer panic the SNP’s recent success has caused in the upper reaches of Britain’s supposedly unflappable establishment.

From the pre-referendum panic that led to the ill-considered Smith Commission proposals, to a torrent of cartoons featuring blue-faced warriors descending on Westminster, there’s been no end to the entertainment; we’ve had retired generals thundering about a breach in Britain’s defences, the Sun portraying the First Minister as a scantily-clad Miley Cyrus figure on a wrecking-ball, and elder statesmen testily demanding that the SNP should stop winning elections, for fear of turning Scotland into a “one-party state”.

There’s no sign of establishment panic more revealing, though, than the extent to which the SNP’s rapid rise has jolted the the British monarchy out of its usual stance of strict impartiality, and into a series of actions widely interpreted as signalling strong opposition to Scottish independence.

Of course, only those already opposed to independence would have instantly assumed that the Queen’s remark, last September, that people should “think very carefully” before voting, put her in the No camp; 1.6 million Scots “thought very carefully”, and then voted Yes. The SNP may also have believed that the monarchy was relatively untroubled by the possibility of independence; it had, after all, presided serenely over the independence of many other dominions and territories, and had been strongly reassured by the SNP under Alex Salmond that the Queen would continue to be Scotland’s head of state, whatever the outcome.

Now, though, it seems that there was serious unease at the Palace, what with the Queen’s “intervention”, and the news of her “purring” after hearing the result. And this week – as the Queen travelled to Berlin to breach the strict impartiality rule again, this time by highlighting the importance of unity in Europe – the royal household apparently embarked on an attempt to stir up indignation, via various newspapers, about the Scottish Government’s alleged intention to withhold some £1.5 million of funding from the monarchy, after taking control of Scotland’s Crown Estates under the Smith proposals.

The story – which was not a new one, and had already been tried out late last year – turned out to be false, and was being denied within 24 hours by everyone from HM Treasury to the Keeper of the Privy Purse. By that time, though, the lie was half-way round the world, while truth was still slipping into its designer heels; and the Times newspaper had published an extraordinarily intemperate leader, thundering about “insurrection” on the part of a rebellious and vindictive Scottish Government.

All of which raises some interesting questions about the likely future of the British monarchy, in the aftermath of these small but noticeable departures from the old impartiality rule. There was an opportunity, after all, around the time of last year’s referendum, for the monarchy to play a useful stabilising role at a tense moment in the nation’s history. The truth about national independence, in the 21st century world, is that it makes far less difference than many people imagine, given the degree of economic interdependence that binds us to our neighbours; and a monarchy scrupulously impartial in the independence debate could have helped symbolise those inevitable continuities, in uncertain times.

Now, though, it seems that either the monarch herself, or some of those around her, have effectively blown that chance, and decided to side with a none-too-appealing British establishment against those seeking change. Of course there will be those who say that this was only to be expected; that the British monarchy has always been a profundly conservative force, effectively blocking radical change.

Yet history suggests that the truth is more complicated. It was during the reign of the Queen’s much-loved father George VI, for example, that an elected British government presided over a complete centre-left revolution in the British state, nationalising everything from power companies to the rail network, and setting up the NHS; those who think that that was not a genuinely radical moment should watch Ken Loach’s great film The Spirit of 45, and think again.

If the monarchy has lost its grip on the business of appearing impartial, in other words, then it may now be at the top of a very slippery slope; and one from which the famously opinionated Prince Charles is unlikely to rescue it, when he ascends the throne. In any modern democracy, from Norway to the Netherlands, the right of a hereditary monarchy to represent the nation is strictly conditional on its adherence to constitutional norms, and on its determination, formally at least, to treat all citizens as equals.

So it’s perhaps not surprising, for example, that there was a genuine small rebeliion this week in Portobello, when children at a local primary school were taken out of class to celebrate a visit by Camilla, Countess of Rothesay, and encouraged to treat the event as a special occasion. Some argued that encouraging young children to defer to a woman who has done nothing except marry the heir to the throne was inappropriate, in the 21st century; others suggested that the protesters should “lighten up”, and view the whole event as harmless summer fun.

What’s clear, though, is that while a royal family may be generally welcome as a series of figureheads representing the whole nation, it rapidly becomes much more controversial when it is perceived as representing a particular opinion or interest group. As students of recent European history know, hereditary monarchy, within strict constitutional limits, has a surprisingly positive record as a backdrop to some of the world’s most effective and highly-developed democracies. Knowing those limits, though, is the essence of the job; and there are many signs that in the midst of the establishment panic over the SNP, Britain’s monarchy – generally so well run, throughout a reign that is about to become the longest in British history – may finally have begun to lose its way.

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