SUMMER in Balmoral will surely be even more satisfying for the Queen this year. She arrived on Friday last week for her annual holiday on the banks of the Dee with the memories of a glorious week in the history of the Royal Family still fresh in her mind – the beaming faces of Prince William and Princess Kate, the hordes of people craning their necks outside Buckingham Palace for a sight of the easel confirming the news of a royal birth and – most of all – a first visit with her new great-grandson, George Alexander Louis, the child who now secures the future of the British monarchy into the next century.
As David Cameron noted last week in Downing Street, it has been a remarkable three years for an institution which, after a decade of divorce, tragedy and fire, had once seemed on the point of collapse. The Royal Wedding, the Diamond Jubilee, and now the birth of the third in line to the throne have ensured that the monarchy is in fine fettle.
As she settles in for a rare break away from the public spotlight, the Queen will surely be well aware, however, that the history-making of the past few weeks and years isn’t going to end just yet. In particular, as she enjoys the Highland air, the Queen will have time to consider the nation-changing event now just over a year away, namely the independence referendum. The monarch has remained steadfastly and characteristically silent on the issue since it was confirmed for September 2014, a little less than a year ago. For his part, First Minister Alex Salmond – who for the past few years has been her guest on Royal Deeside – has made it clear that, in his view, the Queen would continue to be head of state in an independent Scotland, with a senior SNP source, for example, suggesting that, after a Yes vote, the Queen would open an independent Scottish parliament, just as she opens each devolved Holyrood parliament.
This is all part of a clear SNP strategy this summer to spread further reassurance about the impact of independence. There are six “unions” of which Scotland is currently part, it argues: currency, monarchy, society, Europe, defence and political. A Yes vote would only affect the last one. But, as we report today, Salmond’s enthusiasm to see first the Queen, then Charles, then William, and one day George, reign over all of us is not shared by all who espouse the independence cause. The chair of the YesScotland campaign, Dennis Canavan, speaking in a personal capacity, declared: “As to the possibility of another King George, it is important to remember that true democracy is based on the sovereignty of the people rather than the sovereignty of any monarch.”
The notion of “true” democracy is very much at the heart of the pro-independence cause. For many therefore, that means an elected head of state, rather than a hereditary one. So are Salmond’s reassurances on the monarchy really to be believed? Or put it another way, if Scotland votes Yes next year, will Prince George ever be King of Scotland?
It is hardly a surprise, given the glut of happy royal news diverting a nation from the gruel of austerity and cutbacks, that the Royal Family’s popularity has remained in rude health over the past few years, with around four out of every five people backing a monarchy over a republic. Monarchists in Scotland can draw succour from the fact that this appears no less the case north of the Border than in the south. Scottish Nationalists have taken note – and the past 15 years of the party’s history have witnessed a marked warming in their approach to British royalty. In 1997, during a debate at its party conference in Rothesay, in which Salmond found himself on the losing side, SNP members backed a policy of holding a referendum on the monarchy after independence. As recently as 2001, when John Swinney was leader, the party argued the Queen and her successors would remain head of state “subject to the democratic consent of the people in a referendum”. When Salmond re-took control of the party in 2004, however, things changed fast.
The referendum stance on the monarchy was targeted. Former party leader Gordon Wilson explains: “The SNP is a political party. It can see that there is nothing to be gained from being anti-monarchical. This is something that many people, for good reasons and bad, believe in. So why open a second front that is not going to be viable? You concentrate on the main objective and the main objective is independence.”
In 2007, a few months after taking over at the Scottish Government, Salmond published a major new party paper on independence entitled “Choosing Scotland’s Future”. It declared: “On independence, Her Majesty The Queen would remain the Head of State in Scotland. The current parliamentary and political Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would become a monarchical and social Union – United Kingdoms rather than a United Kingdom – maintaining a relationship first forged in 1603 by the Union of the Crowns.” While there was no specific vote on changing the 1997 policy, a party conference “endorsed” the new paper with little debate. Indeed some nationalists believe to this day that the new position on the monarchy was “sneaked through” by the leadership as a couple of lines in a much bigger document.
Today, the old reformers in the party sing a different tune. In 2002, schools minister Alasdair Allan, the MSP for the Western Isles, declared that “we will go into independence with the Queen as the head of state but we will give the people the choice after independence of indicating whether they wish to change that”. Pressed on his position this week, Allan said: “The SNP has not proposed such a referendum for over ten years – I voted at party conference in 2007 to approve the ‘Choosing Scotland’s Future’ document, which includes the Queen being head of state of an independent Scotland. The referendum I back is the one next September, when Scotland will have the opportunity to gain the economic and political powers of independence, while maintaining a strong social union with our friends and neighbours south of the Border.”
It may seem, therefore, that the monarchy is here to stay, no matter what. Independence, after all, will not of itself change the views of the people who live here. So it is a fair bet that the same political dynamic which has led to u-turns like Allan’s will remain in place after a Yes vote. Will a governing party after independence risk alienating voters by supporting a new Scottish republic? Perhaps not.
Republicans, however, are biding their time. There is an acceptance that any effort after independence to press the republican cause while the universally respected 87-year-old Queen is still head of state would not just be misguided but “offensive”. Independent MSP Jean Urquhart notes: “If there is a positive vote in September next year I think there are one or two big issues that would merit a referendum and I think the monarchy is one of them. But it would be a horrible thing to be going for a referendum at this time.”
The question is whether the public mood and the opportunity for such a vote might present itself when Charles takes the throne (though there is no suggestion he is any less popular in Scotland than anywhere else).
There is also the intriguing thought that the British monarchy would want to “prove” its legitimacy in Scotland by pushing the case for a referendum themselves. Nationalists note the example of Norway in 1905. The new country asked the 33-year-old Prince Carl of Denmark to become their king but – aware of a substantial republican sentiment – he insisted on a referendum on the choice between a monarchy and a republic before taking the crown. The people backed him. Might the British monarchy seek a similar democratic mandate from people in Scotland to cement their role in the wake of a Yes vote? Who knows?
The likelihood is that, as in the UK, inertia will act in favour of the monarchy. There will be other more pressing issues that need to be tackled. And while the choice of the Royal Family may be an accident of genetics that leaves itself open to ridicule, the concept of an elected Head of State is not immune to lampoonery either (President Billy Connolly anyone?). Yet, as pro-independence figures argue, at least with independence the choice to decide is there – and a debate which is theoretical within a British context, would become very real.
Republican supporters would quickly point out that a country which intends to enshrine the “sovereignty of the people” in a written constitution is getting off to an odd start by welcoming the principle of a hereditary monarch.
There would be practical issues too; Canavan, for example, argues that the Crown Estate – which, in Scotland, maintains some 37,000 hectares of rural estate and which currently sends its profits to the UK Treasury – should become the “People’s Estate”, with the Scottish Parliament in charge.
Whether it remains her United Kingdom or whether next year she finds herself the sovereign of the United Kingdoms, the Queen can be assured this summer that her Balmoral home will always remain within her realm. But if it is a Yes next year, the exact role of her successors will more than likely become the subject of far more scrutiny. “The point is that [a republic] is an option with independence when it would never be an option without it,” declares Urquhart. George Alexander Louis, take note. «