Kenny Farquharson: A right royal test of Salmond’s power

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AH, THOSE were the days. Excuse me while I get a tad misty-eyed while recalling a enjoyable weekend in Rothesay in September 1997, when the SNP conference and assorted hangers-on like myself rolled into town.

It sticks in my mind for two reasons. The first is a moment when a friend, now an upright member of the establishment, almost fell off the pier at three o’clock in the morning while somewhat the worse for wear. And the second is a cracker of a conference debate in Rothesay’s art deco Pavilion about the SNP’s attitude to the British monarchy.

It was a classic political stand-off: on one side, passion and gut instinct; on the other, cool heads and pragmatism. Leading the republicans was Roseanna Cunningham, glamorous and charismatic and at that time the darling of the Left of the party. The press called her Republican Rose, and she pressed all the party’s anti-establishment buttons. To cacophonous applause she argued that a decision on keeping the Queen as head of state should be made by the people of an independent Scotland in a referendum.

The party leadership was appalled. Remarkably, Salmond himself spoke in the debate - a most unusual step for a party leader - urging the activists to take a more realistic position that wouldn’t alienate the many Scots who held the royal family in high regard. Antagonising them would jeopardise the SNP’s chances of achieving its ultimate goal. “Remember not to travel hopefully, but to arrive,’’ he told his party.

Salmond lost the argument. The vote went against him, and SNP policy became that “within the term of office of the first independent parliament of Scotland a referendum will be held on the question of whether or not to retain the monarch as head of state for Scotland”. A chastened leader admitted defeat with as much grace as he could muster. “The leadership will respect the view of the party,’’ Salmond told an excited gaggle of political journalists.

The question now is simple. Will Salmond be true to his word? Will he respect the view of his party? On Friday I listened to his speech at Holyrood, where the Queen was formally opening the new session of the Scottish Parliament. The First Minister painted a picture of an independent Scotland that retained the British monarch as head of state, presenting this arrangement as a sign that Scotland and England would remain “firm friends and equal partners” after the split.

And I was struck by how important the continued royal rule over Scotland has become to Salmond’s plans to win a historic referendum on independence in this parliamentary term. It has become the cornerstone of the “social union” idea that he believes will reassure many of those who currently oppose the break-up of the UK.

But what about party policy? Salmond’s cuddling up to the royals won’t reassure anyone if the SNP plan is to allow Scots to ditch the Windsors the moment Scotland gains its freedom.

Yesterday I asked the party if the September 1997 conference decision was still the SNP’s extant policy on the monarchy. I was a little taken aback by the response, which I reproduce here in full: “Since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, what we now propose is a referendum on our proposal for an independent Scotland, to be held towards the end of this parliament, which will include the long-standing policy for the Queen and her successors to be head of state.”

What long-standing policy might that be, I asked? When was it formulated, and by whom? The response came back that “the policy to retain the monarchy dates back to the founding of the SNP in 1934”.

So, it seems that democratic conference decision in Rothesay, along with Salmond’s promise to respect the will of the party, was all a Bobby Ewing style dream. Alternatively, Alex Salmond has decided that SNP party policy is inconvenient to his chosen strategy. So he has simply chosen to ignore it. He has done so in the belief that his power over the party is so absolute, no-one will dare challenge him about it.

He may be right. Maybe the SNP is just a Salmond cult, a party incapable of doing anything other than what it’s told. Or maybe Salmond is wrong to take his party for granted in this way. Maybe there are people in the SNP so appalled at the prospect of an independent Scotland being thirled to the British monarchy that they will make their voice heard. Maybe there are people so appalled at Salmond’s apparent contempt for the SNP’s grass roots that they feel it is necessary to speak up for the integrity of the party’s democratic processes.

People often comment on how disciplined the SNP is these days. That’s true, but the party’s discipline has not really been tested in recent years. It certainly hasn’t been tested on something as contentious as the monarchy or membership of Nato, both touchstone issues for many.

These are exciting times for Scottish Nationalists. But they are also uncertain times. The mood music about “independence lite”, and the possibility that a 21st-century version of a nation state might include sharing sovereignty with both London and Brussels, is disconcerting to some, and an outrage to others.

I’m told the deadline for motions to be debated at this year’s SNP party conference is only days away. I imagine SNP activists may have a number of questions, not just about the monarchy but about defence and welfare and currency in an independent Scotland. They may also have questions about whether their views will be taken into account as the party formulates its plans. Will these questions be asked, and answered? We’ll see.

• This article was now published in the Scotland on Sunday on 03 Jul 2011