Peter Jones: And who will represent the Queen?

Alex Salmond expects to retain the monarchy post-independence. Picture: AFP
Alex Salmond expects to retain the monarchy post-independence. Picture: AFP
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IT is ironic that the latently republican nationalists may yet end up creating a real Scottish governor-general, says Peter Jones

In THE olden days before devolution, nationalists used to refer derisively to any Conservative Scottish Secretary as “the Governor-General”. Readers will know, of course, that this implied Scotland was a distant colony of the British Empire ruled by the Queen’s representative in a casually uncaring way. But one of the ironies of Scottish independence is that Scotland might end up with a real governor-general.

This discovery came after I was urged by the ever-inquisitive letter-writer to The Scotsman, Steuart Campbell, to inquire whether Alex Salmond’s claim that the Queen would be the head of state of an independent Scotland was justified. I am pretty certain that it is, but there are other consequences that might just be a little problematic.

How, assuming Scotland votes for independence, would the Queen become Scotland’s head of state? According to Robert Hazell, director of the constitution unit at University College London, she would act on the Advice (which, when it is given to the monarch, apparently is spelled with a capital A) of ministers.

In this case, the Advice would come from two ministers – the prime minister of the about-to-be broken up UK, and Scotland’s first minister. Only if the two sets of advice contradicted each other would there be a problem. But that seems most unlikely. Mr Salmond, assuming that he puts maintaining the Queen’s constitutional status in Scotland as part of the independence manifesto, would also be able to say that it was the wish of the people that she should be Scotland’s head of state.

Neither could the British prime minister block the Queen from receiving the first minister’s advice. Mr Salmond already has direct lines of communication with the Palace and meets the Queen for private audiences. And trying to prevent the Queen from becoming Scotland’s head of state would seem an extraordinarily petty thing for the British prime minister to do.

The only reason I can think of for such blocking manoeuvres is fear of setting a diplomatic precedent which would smooth Scotland’s path into EU membership. That’s because having the Queen as head of state would, according to prominent constitutional expert Professor Vernon Bogdanor, necessitate Scottish membership of the Commonwealth.

If this happens without any impediment, it could be viewed as setting a precedent that Scotland simply inherits all the duties, obligations and international treaties of the former UK as one of two successor states to the UK, something that the British prime minister might not be too keen to accept. It is also possible that one of the other 53 Commonwealth countries might object to Scotland automatically becoming a member and would demand a more formal negotiation. There is, after all, a queue for Commonwealth membership. One country knocking on the door, rather oddly since it has absolutely no connection with British imperial history, is Algeria. But since Rwanda and Mozambique, which similarly have little connection with Britain in their history, are already Commonwealth members, this suggests that Scotland should get in. But the path may not be as easy as it looks.

Assuming no political bar either to Commonwealth membership or the Queen becoming head of state, might she yet have something to say about this? That the monarch only decides to act having taken Advice, implying that the Advice might be rejected, is assumed to be a polite fiction, perhaps simply because there is no recorded instance of the Queen ever even questioning the Advice. But previous monarchs have balked at accepting it, the most famous instance involving, neatly enough, a home rule issue.

In 1914, the UK government, grappling with Irish demands for self-rule, passed an Irish home rule bill, providing for devolved government in Dublin for the whole island. Ulster unionists objected vehemently and the then monarch, George V, concerned that the unionists were being unfairly treated, told prime minister Herbert Asquith that he might refuse to give royal assent. He never did, in effect, veto the bill, but did secure a conference, held at Buckingham Palace, of all the interested parties. This ended in deadlock and then the whole matter was shelved because of the outbreak of World War I. So it is possible, if there was significant unhappiness amongst a section of the Scottish population about a pro-independence vote, that the Queen might take an interest and threaten to withhold royal assent.

This, I think, is so unlikely that it can be discounted. This then leaves the question of what institutional shape the office of Scottish head of state would have. Would there be a governor-general? The answer, according to Prof Bogdanor, is probably yes. All the 15 Commonwealth countries of which the Queen is still head of state have one, the job being to fulfil certain ceremonial duties of the monarch such as handing out medals and receiving ambassadors. Quite bizarrely, Ireland had a governor-general after achieving independence in 1922 until 1949 when the post, along with the British monarch’s nominal responsibility for representing Ireland overseas, was abolished.

Unless Scotland explicitly becomes a republic, which Mr Salmond says he does not want, this same nominal overseas representative role would also have to be vested in the Queen. Although this makes no great sense to me, such are the intricacies of this and other aspects of royal and diplomatic protocol, it seems that having a Scottish governor-general, with all the funny hats and elaborate uniforms that go with it, would be required. Prof Bogdanor does counsel that ways round this could be found. Scotland, he says, could be an exception because, uniquely, it has a land border with the Queen’s home realm and the Queen has two Scottish royal residences – Balmoral Castle and Holyrood Palace. One possibility is that as, presumably, keeping the Queen as head of state would also involve maintaining the network of 35 Lord Lieutenants, who are responsible for organising any royal visit to their area, one of them could be designated as having governor-general status. Another is that the Lord Lyon, responsible for looking after heraldry and aristocratic titles, might take on the job.

Whatever the outcome, it seems ironic that nationalists, with all their latent republicanism and campaigns against political “governor-generals”, might end up creating a real Scottish governor-general.