Des McNulty: No debate will leave us in a right royal mess

Issues intrinsic to independence must not be ignored in a bid to secure a particular result, says Des McNulty

For Unionists, the monarchy is an integral part of UK constitutional and governance arrangements. Among those who support Scottish independence there are different views on whether the monarchy should be part of any new constitution. The SNP leadership has chosen, largely for tactical reasons, to make retention of the monarchy part of its package. This shows how much the debates are focused on the present and not what Scotland may be in, say, 20 years.

Launching an independence campaign ten days before a diamond jubilee, it would be suicidal to suggest ditching the Queen. She has been described as hard-working, selfless, intelligent – all, no doubt, true.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

But if an independent Scotland remained a monarchy, voters would not simply get Queen Elizabeth. Her successors will be our rulers. It’s not just keeping a much-loved, 85-year-old granny: do Scots in future want the celebrity version of which we already have a taste?

The proposal to retain the current monarchy involves accepting a lineage from which Roman Catholics are excluded and which still passes down the male line. The SNP is well aware that this makes no sense in 21st-century Scotland. Can those who support independence sign up for this with a clear conscience, knowing change is dependent on Westminster rather than Holyrood?

Costs are not insignificant. Would Scotland be willing to pay a 10 per cent share of the civil list when money is needed for hospitals, schools or roads? The monarchy is a symbol of Britain’s imperial past and grandeur is expensive. If an independent Scotland is to have a monarchy, would a rather lower-key version not be better?

Perhaps we need separate monarchs. Prince Charles could rule England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Scotland could choose Princess Anne and her successors. Scotland could get rid of any links to England’s established church, remove the prohibition on Roman Catholics and pursue positive action on gender equality. Anne seems down to earth, supports the Scotland rugby team and both she and her daughter married in Scotland. The Royal Mile is a bit steep for a bicycling monarchy, as they have in some Scandinavian countries, but one of those new moped types with an engine would work.

More seriously, the notion that after independence the monarchy would continue unaffected is unrealistic. Alex Salmond says that his aim is to repeal the Parliamentary Union of 1707, not the Union of the Crowns of 1603. However, constitutional arrangements are too complex to be unravelled by reverting to legal arrangements for monarchical rule from the beginning of the 17th century. Legislating for independence would almost inevitably lead to a written constitution and there would need to be debate about the precise role of a monarch.

SNP strategists believe that retaining the monarchy helps them with the phrasing of the referendum question. The wording they propose makes no mention of leaving the United Kingdom. We are to be comforted by the notion that continuity would be preserved in the person of Her Majesty and the institution of the shared crown. But the reality is that the monarchy has been, for more than three centuries, a unifying symbol of the United Kingdom.

Having to adapt to very different requirements in post-independence Scotland while maintaining its traditional role in the rest of the UK would put it under severe strain.

In 1977, Scotland participated in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations. Throughout the country there were street parties and civic events. Last week this newspaper reported that there had been no applications in Glasgow for permission to hold Diamond Jubilee street parties. If there is less enthusiasm north of the Border for organised celebrations compared with elsewhere in the UK does that mean there is less support here for the monarchy?

For many Yes campaign activists, part of the attraction of separatism is the prospect of ending the monarchy and creating a modern political system with an elected head of state. In recent years, the strong republican strand within the SNP has been silenced. But some on the party’s executive are troubled by Mr Salmond’s statements about keeping the monarchy when the party’s policy – that the monarchy would be retained, pending a popular referendum – has never been rescinded, merely set aside.

We are supposed to be having the most important debate in the nation’s history. Scotland needs to decide what it wants to be in 20 years. Closing down discussion about the head of state should not be an option. When the devolved parliament was set up in 1999, those responsible thought they had created a lasting settlement. Very quickly, however, devolution became a process rather than an event, further powers were sought and, after 15 years, we will have an independence referendum.

Those who favour independence with a monarchy should be open to discussion in advance about constitutional arrangements – what the role of the monarch would entail and an agreement on costs. Otherwise the monarchy could find itself on a slippery slope. We certainly do not want a delayed or continuing wrangle that would serve neither Scotland nor the Royal Family.

Some may see this as a sideshow, and to a degree it is. But this issue demonstrates the need to probe what looks like simple solutions. Debate is getting under way on the supposed option of keeping the pound. We need to examine much more thoroughly issues such as the currency and the monarchy. If we do not, we might slide into a “yes” decision that leaves us having to deal with vital questions that should have been answered.

• Des McNulty is a former Labour MSP