Alex Salmond's counterfeit monarchism

The SNP’s decision to embrace the royals looked like a clever strategic manoeuvre. But is it beginni

On Monday, Alex Salmond became the latest in a long line of British politicians to deliver a toe-curling tribute to the Queen on her Diamond Jubilee. "Her Majesty", he said, "has served her country with the utmost grace and distinction; her dedication and commitment has inspired countless people across the country and around the world. And of course, her affection for Scotland is reciprocated by Scots of all generations."

On the basis of this grovelling paean, it would be easy to forget that the SNP's pledge to retain the monarchy after Scotland becomes an independent country is relatively new. In fact, although it has never officially been a republican organisation, there has always been a strong thread of anti-royalist sentiment running through its rank and file. This was at its most prominent in the late 1970s and early 80s following the emergence of the 79 Group, an influential socialist faction which was eventually expelled from the party because of its alleged links to Sinn Fein. More recently, in an attempt to defuse what remains a highly charged issue for much of the activist base, the leadership had offered to hold a referendum on the abolition of the throne following Scotland's secession from the UK.

But four years ago, Salmond - himself once a member of the 79 Group - changed that. Now, the SNP says it plans to leave the 1603 Union of the Crowns untouched regardless of the how the debate on independence plays out. One reason this dramatic policy adjustment went unchallenged at the time was that the party had not long entered government and needed to maintain discipline. Another is that under the SNP's proposed citizens initiative programme there may be opportunity in the future for the public to trigger a vote on the monarchy through a petitions process.

Cleary, the nationalists new-found monarchism does not sit well with their traditional opposition to other features of the UK's antiquated constitutional system. The party never nominates its MPs for peerages and, in recent years, has consistently stressed its belief in a popular conception of sovereignty which has at its core the democratic will of the Scottish people. It is difficult, then, to escape the conclusion that Salmond's decision was anything other than highly calculated and strategic.

The SNP is aware that many Scots view independence as an unnecessary and possibly reckless leap into the unknown. Three hundred years of London rule and at least four decades of relentless Unionist scaremongering have encouraged the belief that self-government could result in catastrophe. So in an effort to reassure the Scottish public that the break-up of Britain would not be as disruptive as its opponents claim, Salmond has developed a narrative of continuity. An independent Scotland, he argues, won't share a parliament with the English, Welsh and Northern Irish, but it will still share a currency, a culture and a monarch. In other words, life will not change radically if Scotland leaves the Union.

In some ways, this ultra-cautious approach has been very effective. The SNP, once derided as a pressure group for whisky-soaked extremists, is now firmly established in the British political mainstream. Only the Scottish Labour Party - still suffering from the trauma caused by its crushing defeat at the devolved elections last May - remains convinced that a dark streak of chauvinism underpins the nationalist world view. In other ways, however, it has been seriously counter-productive.

Of late, one of the SNP's main demands has been for responsibility over the Crown Estate Commission's (CEC) Scottish functions be devolved to Holyrood. The UK government is against this, principally because it doesn't want to relinquish control over an asset which in the future could generate significant revenues through renewable energy production. So, as respected land reform campaigner Andy Wightman highlighted, last year George Osborne moved to link the size of the sovereign grant - the annual sum given by the state to the Royal family for the maintenance of its properties - to a portion of the CEC's profits. This was a brazen political manoeuvre designed to create an administrative obstacle to any transfer of power. Yet, the Scottish government raised no protest. Why? The only explanation is that it was desperate not be seen as critical of or hostile to the monarchy.

This limp capitulation should have set-off alarm bells for the SNP membership. Why on earth had their normally combative leaders backed away from a fight with Westminster? But again, there was not a whisper of protest. The SNP's suppression of its republican instincts is indicative of a wider small-c conservative trend within the party. In his bid to assuage popular anxieties about the possible consequences of self-determination, Salmond believes he has to abandon the most radical aspects of the nationalist project in exchange for the gloss of moderation. Those who see independence as a means to a different and better Scotland should be worried about what else he might be willing to trade away.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.