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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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn ally Diane Abbott argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.