Royal wedding at risk of becoming political football

FEARS that the Royal Family will be dragged into next year's Scottish election campaign were expressed last night after Clarence House announced the Royal Wedding will take place less than a week before the 2011 poll.

• Westminster Abbey has been confirmed as the wedding venue. Picture: AP

Political experts questioned the timing of Prince William's marriage to Kate Middleton, claiming the Friday, 29 April date could disrupt the election planned for the following week.

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The prospect of wall-to-wall royal coverage in the run up to the poll led to concerns that election campaigning could be hijacked by politicians keen to make the Monarchy a defining issue of the 5 May contest.

Political observers suggested that republican Nationalists would be keen to pick fault with the celebrations, a move that would provoke a fierce monarchist backlash from the pro-Union parties.

Many people within the SNP hold anti-monarchist views but Alex Salmond has said the Queen would remain head of state in an independent Scotland.

Last night, Mr Salmond announced the wedding of the future king and queen would be marked by a public holiday in Scotland on the day of the ceremony.

Mr Salmond's Cabinet decided to follow David Cameron's example and make the day a holiday in Scotland as well as south of the Border.

The First Minister offered his congratulations to the happy couple but acknowledged the date set by them had "implications for the electoral and parliamentary timetable".

The new public holiday will lead to alterations to the deadlines for postal voting, the dissolution of Holyrood and voter registration.

• Families to meet the bill for a celebration in tune with economy

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But it was not just the administrative changes that caused concern.

"It is rather unfortunate timing," said John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University.

"You are likely to see the Royal Family getting caught up in political debate."

Professor Curtice warned that the monarchy could become a "heightened issue".

He said: "As far as Scotland is concerned, let us imagine that the monarchy is in the news, there is obviously an increased danger that an SNP candidate of a republican persuasion might be found saying something critical about the monarchy. You can then imagine, thinking that they've found a mistake, the Tories, Labour will pile in. There is obviously a risk therefore, because you are making the monarchy a heightened issue."

Bill Wilson, an SNP MSP with republican sympathies, agreed that the timing was not good. He also claimed that a lavish celebration would not go down well at a time of economic difficulty.

"This isn't terribly convenient," Mr Wilson said."If there is a terribly extravagant wedding at a time of austerity, people - not just in Scotland - but in England and Wales as well might be saying we would rather have our jobs.

"All the points that are being raised, do suggest that a future head of state should have considered the dates of future state elections. That is a reasonable thing to expect a future head of state to do. They could have had it a week earlier or a week later."

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Professor Curtice pointed out that elections were also taking place elsewhere in the United Kingdom on 5 May and suggested that flag-waving for a British monarchy could lead to nationalist resentment during Ulster's Assembly election.

"In Northern Ireland, don't be surprised if the nationalists use it as a recruiting symbol," Professor Curtice said.

Controversial plans to hold a referendum on the Westminster voting system on 5 May could also fall foul of the Royal Wedding, Professor Curtice suggested.

The proximity of the wedding to the referendum on the Lib Dems' Alternative Vote (AV) policy could fuel the arguments of the SNP and Labour, who want the poll delayed until after 5 May.

"There is a danger they (the Royal Family) might all get caught up in the row about the referendum date," Professor Curtice said.

"Those who are opposed to it might regard it as another reason to oppose the referendum."

Mr Salmond's decision to back Scottish Conservative calls for a public holiday will see the date for the dissolution of Holyrood move from 23 March to the 22nd.

Election rules state that there must be 28 working days between the dissolution of parliament and polling day.

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It is expected that another one or two days will be found in the parliamentary calendar to make up for the lost time.

Similarly, the date for candidate nominations will move back from 30 March to the 29th, the deadline for postal votes will move from 15 April to the 14th.

The deadline for electoral registration falls back from 19 April to the 15th.

"The election just got a little bit more difficult," Professor Curtice said. "You can see the story developing, people asking 'where is my postal vote?

"I would imagine that returning officers are none too happy about this. It makes their lives a bit more difficult."

Mr Salmond's spokesman said the First Minister did not think the wedding date interfered with the political system, even though the SNP has argued against holding an AV referendum on the same day as the election on similar grounds.

"It is a personal decision for the couple and their families. The AV referendum is a different matter."That is a decision taken by politicians, which could easily have been arranged for another occasion."

The spokesman said campaigning would probably be suspended on the public holiday adding: "In political terms, we are talking about one day in a lengthy period of political activity."

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Mr Salmond said: "I extend my warmest congratulations to Prince William and Miss Middleton as they look forward to a wonderful wedding day and the beginning of a long and very happy marriage."

Anti-monarchy group Republic said creating a bank holiday for something "most people are not interested in" was "absurd" and that an extra day off should only be for something everyone could relate to.

A spokeswoman for the Electoral Commission said: "We have got plenty of notice for these changes, which in the main move things forward a day early. It will not affect the planning that much. After all we are used to Westminster elections being called with just days to go."