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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.