Brian Monteith: People’s Republic may lose votes

Her Majesty the Queen is still very popular north of the Border. Picture: PA
Her Majesty the Queen is still very popular north of the Border. Picture: PA
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If a solo nation got rid of the Queen in favour of a president, who would get the job? The very idea worries Brian Monteith

I’m sure that when Nicola Sturgeon launched her draft constitution for an independent Scotland she did not do so with the intention of kicking off a debate about whether or not we should become a People’s Republic – but that’s what she’s now got.

Alex Salmond has very carefully nurtured a sense that independence will not be too different from being a full member of the United Kingdom, apart from the repeated assertion that there will be no more Tory governments. We are told we will keep the pound, remain in the EU without even having to apply to join, become a member of Nato, have open borders and retain Her Majesty the Queen as our head of state – none of which are in his gift.

All will require tough negotiations, with the sole exception of our monarch having already signalled her consent to remain the servant of her devoted public.

Not everyone is an admirer of constitutional monarchy, however, and now division in the Yes campaign is set to make the last of those comfort blankets contentious too – by demanding that after an interim settling-in period Scotland should remove the Queen and find a president. A more divisive policy would be hard to think of, not just because the Queen remains popular in Scotland but also because of the likely candidates that would be proffered as any presidency would be in danger of being politicised.

While a president would most likely be ceremonial and not have any executive powers, the idea that our political parties would not seek to, at the very least, endorse a candidate is risible. A president would therefore be not just elected on a political platform but also have partisan support.

One doesn’t have to think hard to consider who the favourite with the bookies might be – an initially reluctant Alex Salmond himself. With the independence referendum out of the way I’m sure he would be able to overcome his natural modesty and be persuaded to put his name forward, leaving Nicola Sturgeon free to seek the role of First Minister. It used to be said ten years ago that the best reason against ending the British monarchy was the thought that we could easily get Tony Blair as President – for Scotland now read Alex Salmond.

It is rather ironic that after nearly two years of being told by many nationalists we should become more like Scandinavian countries, we are now meant to ignore the fact that Norway, Sweden and Denmark also happen to be constitutional monarchies, just like we are also meant to forget that they often elect Conservative parties into government.

Other small countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium and some larger ones like Spain are also constitutional monarchies – without any sense that great inequalities are caused by the arrangement. In fact, having a constitutional monarchy is not odd or anachronistic for our times, with over 40 such constitutional arrangements in place around the world.

I am not convinced that if the Yes campaign is able to succeed in breaking Scotland away from the political entity of Great Britain, the Scottish public will be willing to lose Queen Elizabeth also, and presumably Alex Salmond has made the same calculation. An interesting point will be crossed, however, when the Queen leaves the throne through her eventual death or abdication (the latter of which appears to be unlikely). The ascendency of Charles III would undoubtedly be a point when republican voices would be heard – and such advocates may have used the intervening years to organise for such a mobilisation, giving themselves a better chance. Salmond has already endorsed Charles as the heir succeeding and the draft constitution talks of heirs and successors – but can politicians be trusted? That clause will become the contentious section as republicans would like to leave the door open to revisit the issue at a more propitious time.

The advocates of a Scottish People’s Republic, led at the weekend by Yes Campaign board member and Scottish Socialist Party leader Colin Fox, will not be content with just removing the monarch from our coins or attending the opening of our parliament – they will also seek other policies that Alex Salmond has tried to deny are likely, such as giving up on any application to join Nato and drastically raising income tax on the high earners.

Dennis Canavan, the Yes Campaign chairman, has already raised the prospect of increasing the top rate of tax in Scotland. It is often forgotten that Scotland has only some 13,000 such taxpayers – and that these include such unlikely fat cats as family doctors and head teachers. The biggest protection against any tax rise is the ability of most earners to up sticks and move south, denying millions to the Scottish exchequer, unless the advocates of a Scottish People’s Republic are also supporters of Cuban-style restrictions on the movement of people. While the likes of Cuba might be popular with the far left in the Yes campaign I expect the Scottish people would not be so keen to emulate its standard of living and have a presidency like Castro’s, with four yachts moored in a private marina.

The issue of Nato membership – an organisation that has a nuclear defence policy that is the antithesis of many in the SNP and (more quietly) Labour – would, I am sure, also be brought back on the agenda. The focus of the argument about membership has so far come from unionists suggesting Nato might not allow an anti-nuclear Scotland to join, but there still remains the prospect of a rebellion within SNP ranks that could spread to Labour once the independence referendum is past.

The Scottish people can probably sleep easily without having to worry about any of this. The far left and the Greens enjoy little public support, relying upon the proportional voting system to give them a chance of elected office. And while the thought of Alex Salmond as president is likely to make some doubters vote No – the thought of creating a Scottish People’s Republic is hardly likely to win any votes to the Yes campaign that are not already there already.

Voicing off about a Scottish People’s Republic is therefore counterproductive to the Yes campaign and a sign that its self discipline is beginning to collapse. Republican nationalists should be careful what they wish for.