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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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.