By his mere presence, the Earl of Strathearn is succeeding where here-today-gone-tomorrow politicians were failing. May the Lord bless’ee, your highness.
If you think you have been seeing more of Prince William up here lately it is, according to a “source close to the Royal Household” speaking to the Sunday Times, all part of a cunning Buckingham Palace plan to do their bit to persuade Scots to stick with the Union.
So on Monday, Prince William accompanied the Queen on the first of eight engagements, to AG Barr’s Cumbernauld plant where he supped some Irn-Bru and then enjoyed the company of a handful of my Edinburgh Council colleagues at the Ceremony of the Keys at Holyroodhouse.
On Tuesday, he was with her again at the ceremonial steel cutting for HMS Belfast at BAe Systems’ Glasgow yard, before flying south for a football match of some apparent significance. As well as the Royal Week dates, the Duke and Duchess of Wessex, Edward and Sophie, popped their heads round Edinburgh’s new St James Quarter retail complex.
None of this is particularly unusual for Royal Week, although when Prince William was here in May in his role as Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, he crammed in 21 appointments, including watching the cup final with ambulance crews in the Grassmarket, opening the new hospital in Kirkwall and a romantic trip down memory lane with his wife to meet St Andrews University students.
As the Queen heads north to spend summer and early autumn in Balmoral ─ a quarter of her time is spent in Scotland ─ it’s to be expected that the Cambridges and their family will be in the Highlands for some of the time.
This again is supposed to be part of a plan. “Advisers want William and Kate to be in Balmoral a lot more and build on their St Andrews connection,” the Times’ source said. “They want them not to look like visitors but to look like residents.”
There is some sense in this, because anyone who has spent much time here knows Brigadoonery is largely reserved for formal occasions or when the national football and rugby teams are playing.
Kilt-wearing as everyday attire in the Central Belt is as rare as Morris Dancing gear in Manchester, so Royal Family members wrapping themselves in plaid at Highland Games can look like they are playing at being shortbread-tin Scots, even if Billy Connolly has dressed the same.
As Patrick Cargill famously told Tony Hancock in the Blood Donor sketch, “We’re not all Rob Roys, you know,” and having spent four years at St Andrews it’s unlikely either William or Kate need this pointing out. In fact, glance at pictures from Royal engagements south of the Stonehaven-Helensburgh fault line and, soldiers apart, there’s barely a swatch of tartan in sight.
The problem with the Sunday Times’ mole ─ the paper can’t be blamed for reporting what it was told ─ was the portrayal of the Royal couple as entitled puppets to be manipulated in a great constitutional game. “They think of it as their Union. It was originally a union of crowns,” said the source, displaying an extraordinary lack of awareness that citing hereditary ownership when the sovereignty of the people has been central to the debate could do nothing but harm.
Further, the claim that “they think the politicians have been losing Scotland for them” made either the source or the Cambridges look unaware of the fight being put up by unionist politicians in Scotland every day, and staggeringly naïve to suggest that a few more sporran-free Royal visits would sway the undecided middle.
As an astute SNP source told the Times, it meant every Royal visit would be “assessed through that prism”, although pictures of a very jolly and relaxed Queen sitting down with a somewhat awkward-looking First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week confounded the message of Royal concern.
It would be equally naïve to argue that picture opportunities are simply a record of sovereignly duties without any attempt to convey a message. Anything which portrays the Royal Family in a positive light is itself a political statement for republicans but, while the SNP remains committed to a constitutional monarchy, more Scottish royal engagements can be interpreted as a desire to remain at the head of an independent state as much as a deliberate anti-separation strategy. After all, from 1922 until 1936 the formal head of the Irish Free State was the British king.
Nationalists ruefully remember the Queen’s remark to well-wishers outside Crathie Kirk just before the 2014 referendum that people should think carefully about their decision, widely interpreted as a warning against the risk of independence, and if there was a plan for the Cambridges to spend more time in Scotland as a political ploy, the best way to wreck it was to tell a newspaper it was a ruse.
Just saying William and Kate would be in Scotland more often because they felt at home ─ the theme of his closing speech to the General Assembly in which he poignantly recalled it was at Balmoral he learnt of his mother’s death ─ would have been less newsworthy but more helpful.
Palace officials strained to reduce the fall-out and coverage of this week’s events was unclouded by misinterpretation, but since May’s election the independence temperature has markedly lowered. Soaring Covid cases and the vaccine success, the implications of delivering a bloated SNP election manifesto, a shocking delivery track record and the post-Brexit realities of separation are impacting on independence support and the last thing unionists need is for some well-connected and well-intentioned dunderhead telling the world the Royal Family has come to the rescue.
John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh