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“We are within one explosion of having King Harry”

The acclaimed historian has long held royalist sympathies, but recent events have thrown him into do

In the sublime novel The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald evokes how the news of the French Revolution in 1793 reached provincial Saxony by means of the Jenaer Allgemeine Zeitung, the newspaper that the poet Novalis brought back from his university. Novalis’s old father, Freiherr von Hardenberg, says: “I don’t understand what I am reading . . . They are going to bring a civil action against the legitimate king of France!” In disgust, he resolves not to read another newspaper until the revolution has been defeated. His other son, Erasmus, however, believes that “the revolution is the ultimate event . . . a republic is the way forward for all humanity”. I sympathise with both points of view, while wishing that I shared the beauty of vision of Novalis, who believes: “It is possible to make the world new, or rather to restore it to what it once was, for the golden age was once a reality.”

What would make Britain new? We urgently feel the need for renewal, for refreshment, after a period of bad government. Would it help to get rid of the monarch and reach forward with “humanity” towards a political system in which anyone of great ability – a British Barack Obama or Nelson Mandela – could provide us with the inspiring leadership we need? Or is our way to the golden age only to be found in our rootedness, our connection with the past?

The cliché that the present Queen has “never put a foot wrong” during her long reign points to the nature of our dilemma. As head of state she did nothing discernible to prevent the horrendous abuses perpetrated by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown over the past 12 years. When Blair tried to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor in a fit of power-mad tinkering, who prevented him – indeed, pointed out that it was constitutionally impossible? Not the head of state, no, but the old Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine and a spirited group of backwoodsmen in the House of Lords.

It was easy to see New Labour’s objections to a second chamber crowded with hereditary peers and bishops; the House of Lords needed drastic reform. But Blair, who created more peers than any prime minister in history, filled the place with his chosen friends and some others who were suspected of having paid for the privilege. Besides this scandal, the expenses fiddles of MPs are small beer. George V, in comparable circumstances, refused to give out peerages and insisted his own ideas about parliament be carried out. What did our Queen do? Apparently, nothing.

At the very same time, the biggest foreign policy blunder since the period of the Second World War was being presented in the Commons as a fait accompli. The Queen, as both head of state and colonel-in-chief of many regiments that would be despatched in the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, should have said no – the majority of her people were against it, after all – but she was as spineless as the MPs who lined up in the lobby to vote in favour of war.

If a head of state has no power, what is it for? The old answer – given at the end of a documentary shown by the BBC 40 years ago – was that the key wasn’t to invest power in her, but to withhold it from politicians. Monarchs did indeed once exercise such a role: it could be argued that having a constitutional monarchy, when other nations were kicking out absolute monarchs and allowing absolutist dictators to take their place, saved Britain from being ruled by a Lenin or a Hitler. Alas, the Queen has let successive leaders grab ever more power. Now the prime minister enjoys presidential power without presidential authority; we have an elective dictatorship that has destroyed the legislature and conducted a criminal war.

If our democracy is to flourish, we need a head of state with more power, not less – one that can hold prime ministers to account and, if they commit crimes, sack them. If only Queen Eli­zabeth II had the intellectual, political and linguistic skills of Queen Elizabeth I, many people would support giving her some of the powers of an elected president. The trouble is, saintly as she might be as a person, she is politically incompetent. After the Iraq War, parliamentary collapse, and the Lords and expenses scandals, it is no longer possible to claim that all we need in the head of state is someone to carry out ceremonial roles – to distribute Maundy money and say a few clipped words to the recipients of damehoods or the British Empire Medal. The Queen’s refusal to check the power mania of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair was no doubt motivated by the fear that if she stepped out of line, there would be calls for a republic – it would “damage the monarchy”. But if the monarchy is as ineffectual as this, why should anyone care whether it is damaged or not?

The answer might be religious. The Queen is a pious woman, and when she was crowned she promised to uphold the Protestant religion. No future head of state will be able to take any such oath without seeming ridiculous. Most practising Christians in the country are Catholic; the huge majority of the population is either secularised or signed up to a non-Christian religion. Whereas the monarch’s religion used to be a unifying force, it would now be a cause of (possibly dangerous) division.

As someone who instinctively favours leaving things be, I do not much like the direction in which these thoughts lead me. Like many people in Britain, I have an affectionate respect for the Queen, and am surprised that I should be having such republican thoughts. In the past, I used to counter any such notions by asking myself: “Would you really want President Hattersley?”

I now find that possibility rather cheers me up. With his chubby, Dickensian features and his knowledge of T H Green and other harmless leftish political classics, Hattersley might not be such a bad thing after all.

I would not reach for the Kleenex during Hattersley’s Christmas broadcast, and he would look rather a chump in his red robes, but these are small prices to pay. I no longer consider him any more absurd, as a potential head of state, than any member of the House of Windsor. It would take only a few deaths – an outbreak of virulent swine flu during a shooting party at Sandringham, or a helicopter crash – for us to have Prince Andrew as head of state. Think about it, if you are a republican. If you are a monarchist, try not to.

Monarchists do best not to think about how the republican system has produced heads of state of the variety and calibre of Charles de Gaulle, Mary Robinson, Mandela and Obama. Yes, Prince William could turn out to be our Juan Carlos. Yet we are within one explosion of having King Harry.

My fear is that, whoever becomes the next prime minister, parliament will not set its house in order. As things in Westminster slither from bad to worse, with more irresponsible silence from Buckingham Palace, the republican argument will seem stronger. We need a politically intelligent head of state, and only an election could produce such a figure.

I had these thoughts in the week that the Dean of Westminster announced a plan to add a corona or some other architectural embellishment to the abbey, above the point in the transept where the monarch is crowned. I was privileged to be asked to join a small group for a walk around the abbey after it was closed, as the light of a high summer evening faded from the windows.

It is eerie being all but alone in Westminster Abbey. Without the tourists, there are only the dead, many of them kings and queens. They speak powerfully and put my thoughts into vivid perspective. Ever since Saxon times, we have crowned our monarchs here, and a high proportion of them are buried here, too. As I walked from the shrine of Edward the Confessor, past the splendid tomb of Henry III to the tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, I asked myself whether I truly wished to bring the whole system to an end. Then, among the shadowy tombs I wondered whether, in a strange way, the end had already been reached? Was the Dean’s idea of building a corona over the next coronation throwing into focus that, for the first time in British history, many people do not want such a ceremony to take place at all? Or will it, on the contrary, lead to a great surge of monarchist feeling, such as I have myself from time to time?

Just before you enter Henry VII’s chapel, there is a tiny paving stone recording that Oliver Cromwell lay there for two years. That was before he was disinterred, hanged at Tyburn and mutilated. Deeply moved as I was, among the tombs, by the thousand years of history that they represent, I was also very moved by this stone. I could not help thinking that those, such as John Milton, who followed the Good Old Cause of Oliver Cromwell might yet have the last word.

I went home and opened my copy of Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches by Carlyle – “Oliver is gone and with him England’s Puritans . . . The genius of England no longer soars Sunward, world-defiant, like an Eagle through the storms . . . the Genius of England, much liker a greedy Ostrich intent on provender and a whole skin mainly, stands with its other extremity Sunward, with its Ostrich-head stuck into the readiest bush . . . The Voices of our Fathers, with thousandfold stern monition to one and all, bid us awake.”

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).