Deciding whether the Queen remains our head of state should not be a footnote in a manifesto, writes Lesley Riddoch
Should the Scottish people vote on whether the Queen remains head of state in an independent Scotland? For Republicans like myself, it’s a no-brainer. Yes campaign chairman Dennis Canavan says the hereditary principle is an “affront to democracy”. Precisely. But I’ll concede Dennis and I are currently in a minority.
Support for the royalty runs at roughly four to one in opinion polls and with an almost foregone conclusion in the offing, many will conclude a vote on the role of the royals is hardly worth the candle in the complex aftermath of a Yes vote.
Such a view reflects only how far the importance of “due process” has fallen in the minds of the public since Margaret Thatcher changed the democratic terms of trade to ensure the ends matter more than the means and the views of prominent folk command more political attention than the underlying distribution of power.
Thus Alex Salmond likes the Queen, enjoyed theatrics in the Commons and happily (though selectively) rubs shoulders with high rollers like Donald Trump and Brian Souter. Dennis Canavan is more of a Spartan purist. There are Scots who admire Alex or Dennis or both. But should the personal stances of two personalities dictate the way Scotland decides its constitutional future?
Let’s not argue about the likely outcome, but about how this key aspect of Scotland’s future governance should be decided – by party manifesto or by referendum.
Two fears seem to have prompted the SNP leadership to oppose a referendum on the monarchy. One referendum might encourage others and any sniff of Republicanism would play into the expert hands of scaremongers.
But there is another fear amongst the voting public – that an independent Scotland will be Alex Salmond’s personal fiefdom with his preferences writ large and no countervailing force to check his rampant ego. Nationalists dismiss this kind of talk as ludicrous, insisting Alex will not be forever at the helm and the SNP is a democracy, as the close-run vote on Nato membership demonstrated.
Nicola Sturgeon’s hand is evidently on the tiller of some policies and many other strong personalities lurk within the Scottish Cabinet. Indeed, keeping so many ferrets in the sack has been the SNP’s great achievement.
Nonetheless, the great fear of many swithering voters is that independence will mean major disruption only to end up with business as usual. A post-2014 election will contain a multitude of important policy pledges. Should the Queen continuing as head of state be just another line in a manifesto? It’s not good enough to hear politicians make promises of “greater involvement”. Mature democracies trust the people to decide.
Democracy is not the production of a well-discussed deal within a party or a union – witness Labour’s Falkirk debacle. It is control by an educated, involved electorate who expect to do more than place a cross in the ballot box every four or five years. If the SNP thinks an old-fashioned, limited, dusted-down version of British democracy will suffice in an independent Scotland, they’ve spent too much time back-slapping in Yes campaign events and not enough in civic debates like those prompted by the Electoral Reform Society, Scottish Community Alliance and the Jimmy Reid Foundation.
Or indeed Nordic Horizons events, where speakers explain precisely how vigorous public control already operates in truly advanced democracies. Of course, many will point out that the radical, liberal Norwegians actually voted to retain the monarchy in 1905 and if they did, why should stuffy old Scots even consider a Republican arrangement? This observation actually cuts right to the chase. An unelected head of state is symbolic in Norway but totemic in Britain, because here the monarchy represents vested interests and unelected authorities which still wield massive power.
The Crown Estate still collects money from communities to access their own coastal waters, piers and foreshores, still owns large bits of Scotland and stands to gain millions when offshore wind and marine energy take off. That cash goes to the British Treasury because the absolute control once enjoyed by the sovereign was simply transferred to the central state. Granted, the SNP has questioned British control of these Scottish resources. But without questioning centralised power, “Crown” titles might just pass into central Scottish Government coffers after independence – not into needy coastal communities.
Equally, feudal landowners, post-Culloden, obtained massive landholdings from Hanoverian monarchs. The thousand folk who own 60 per cent of Scottish land are able to restrict the availability of land, stop the natural growth of communities and thus drive up house prices. Millionaire landowners are also becoming multi-millionaires thanks to agricultural subsidies (whose detailed payments we may not see) and wind-farm rentals.
That’s how powerful the hereditary principle still is in Scottish life. In Norway it has long been very different. Prince Carl of Denmark became King Haakon VII of Norway after winning a referendum he instigated. Smart man. But in 1905 Norway had long since abolished all vestige of the hereditary privilege which still stifles Scottish society.
In the course of researching a new book, I found the Norwegian Constitution of 1814 enfranchised 45 per cent of Norwegian men overnight. Only 0.173 per cent of Scots were thus enfranchised by the British Reform Bill of 1832. Why? The vote was given to adult male landowners in each country – but in Norway that meant tens of thousands of people, not just the select few. The breadth of the post-1814 Norwegian electorate meant “ordinary” Norwegians could flex their political muscle to force the creation of new, elected, representative municipal councils in 1837 which permanently restricted the ability of central “Danophile” elites and state officials to interfere in powerful, truly local municipalities. This paved the way for proportional representation, a political culture of compromise and the embrace of equality as the nation’s guiding social and economic policy objective.
This may seem a long way from the question of a referendum on the future of the monarchy in Scotland. Yet the hope of reforming our unexamined, hereditary hinterland is precisely why many voters plan to vote Yes next year. If we are simply kidding ourselves, it really would be kinder to say.
• Lesley Riddoch’s book, Blossom – what Scotland needs to flourish, will be published by Luath Press on 15 August