Michael Fry: Royalty of a different hue

The recent coronation of Dutch king Willem Alexander was informal compared to the pomp of British royal occasions. Picture: AP
The recent coronation of Dutch king Willem Alexander was informal compared to the pomp of British royal occasions. Picture: AP
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The institution of monarchy would likely persist in an independent Scotland, but it might be very different from the one we’ve become used to, writes Michael Fry

The abdication of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and the succession of King Willem Alexander last week served to remind us that there are other European nations with royal traditions as impressive as the British ones, though rather different in character.

The Dutch traditions are more popular in tone, if not lacking in dignity. The new king put on an ermine robe over his morning suit. A crown, orb and sceptre sat waiting for him in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam. He did not wear or hold them. Instead he just kind of looked them over.

And though the Netherlands has an established Church, which is a reformed Calvinist Church like that in Scotland, the ceremony was not a religious but a secular one.

It culminated in an oath of office, by which Willem Alexander swore to uphold the laws of his country. This came across more like the inauguration of a president than the reconsecration of a monarchy.

Yet it was no less patriotically inspiring, to judge by the jubilation of the crowd outside, a sea of orange tee-shirts, dyed hair and funny noses. The king belongs to the House of Orange, which led the Dutch in their fight for freedom and independence from Spain in the 16th century. So, in a happy way, their descendants joined historical memory with a sense of the liberal, irreverent nation they form today.

We might ponder the differences from what we normally do over here, because Scotland would acquire a monarchy of its own in the event of a vote for independence on 18 September 2014.

A large number, perhaps a majority, of active nationalists are not monarchists at all, and would rather the new country were a republic. Alex Salmond wants none of that. What would he do without his little sessions comparing racing tips with Her Majesty over the tea-cups at Balmoral? He has pledged Scotland will remain a monarchy in the first instance, and then so long as there seems to be no strong popular demand for anything else.

Surely, however, this Scottish monarchy is bound to be somewhat different from the one we share as part of the United Kingdom. The House of Windsor has its usual seat in London, and blends with the character of a fading imperial capital in its unchanging rituals of state that preserve the remembrance of past glories. No outing from Buckingham Palace is complete without its horse-drawn coaches, its jingling household cavalry, its gilded postilions and its guardsman sweating, but never for a moment faltering, under their bearskins.

It all seems to lead the politicians, too, from Tony Blair to David Cameron, to posture as if they were still ruling an Empire.

I am a monarchist myself, but still I ask: would an independent Scotland really want this? Scots pride themselves on being a more democratic people than the English and the whole tenor of Scottish public life is meant to be more open and accountable than theirs, even if we often fall short of the ideals supposed to have been embodied in the restoration of the parliament in 1999.

It is not only me asking the question, but the Church of Scotland too. At its General Assembly later this month, it will set about considering its own position if Scotland should become an independent country.

It has been the established Church since 1560, and over most of that time a central element of Scottish identity. Especially since the Union of 1707 it has been a guardian of that identity against total dissolution into some wider sort of Britishness. The fact that the identity has been maintained, and that we can even ask about the country’s political future, is in good part due to the steadfastness of the Kirk. Even so, it is not what it used to be in the allegiance and affections of the people.

The Kirk’s presence in the rituals of the United Kingdom has anyway always been a bit shadowy. All that happened at the coronation in 1953 was that the Moderator handed the Queen a Bible in Westminster Abbey, while Anglican bishops warbled and anointed. Later she came for a thanksgiving service at St Giles in Edinburgh when she notoriously wore an ordinary day dress while everybody else was done up to the nines in Scottish finery.

Scottish independence offers a chance for the Kirk to reassert its role in the life of the nation. It is proposed that there should be a coronation for future kings or queens of Scots, in which ministers of the established Church would play a central part. Like all good ideas it at once rouses some ticklish questions. Where, for example, would the ceremony take place? I would favour Scone myself, the site of Scottish royal investitures since the earliest times (the last king to do it there was Charles II in 1651).

We have no problem in supplying the regalia which are at present housed, doing nothing in particular, at Edinburgh Castle, where Sir Walter Scott rediscovered them in 1819 (they had gone missing since the Union). But a ticklish point I have not heard mentioned is the role of the Stone of Destiny (or of Scone), also now held in the Castle. It is supposed to be on loan from Westminster Abbey where it had been slotted in under the English throne since King Edward I stole it. In theory it should be returned to the abbey for future coronations. Would this happen if Scotland had meanwhile become an independent country? Answers on a postcard, please, to Buckingham Palace.

I also wonder if the Church of Scotland will really be able to claim a central role in these future Scottish coronations. Active members of the Kirk after all form only a small minority of the nation nowadays, hardly bigger than the Roman Catholic minority. Would the new Scottish state want to privilege one Church over another, especially when religion has become a matter of blithe indifference to the great majority?

Scotland is a secular society and likely to remain so. If royal rituals are to be of any value at all in a nation of the future, it will be better for them to reflect what Scotland is rather than what Scotland is not.

This is the lesson the Dutch have to teach us, one different from what the English might want to teach us: not to be bound by the past even while we carry forward what remains of value in it.

The English, so far as I can see, wish to remain a people of pomp and circumstance, which is their right. Odd as it may seem, the maintenance of the monarchy could help a new Scotland to redefine itself.