Queen Elizabeth met with SNP leader Alex Salmond in Holyrood House in Edinburgh last year. Photo: David Cheskin, AFP
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The SNP can't duck the monarchy debate forever

The calls for a Scottish republic will grow measurably louder following a Yes vote.

I’ve always thought of the SNP as a republican party with a monarchist leadership. This view isn’t based on any particular piece of research (although James Mitchell’s 2012 book, Transition to Power, details the extent of republican sentiment among the nationalist grassroots).  It’s based, instead, on the fact I’ve never actually met an SNP activist who wanted the Queen to remain head of state in an independent Scotland.

Indeed, a couple of years ago I attended (out of curiosity) an SNP branch meeting in London, at which a spokesperson for an anti-royalist pressure group was speaking. At the end of the talk a straw poll was taken – monarchy: Yes or No? Just one of the 20 or so people there – a heavily bearded gentleman– opposed the idea of an independent Scottish republic, and that was because he was holding out, wonderfully enough, for the restoration of the Stuarts.

That said, SNP leaders have faced little internal pressure over the years to abandon their support for the Queen. Even the socialist 79 Group, active in the early 1980s, was reluctant to force the issue, as some of its leading members (my own late dad, the Group’s chair, among them) were concerned about Scottish nationalism becoming too closely associated with Irish republicanism. So it wasn’t surprising that, last week, Nicola Sturgeon was able to unveil the SNP’s proposed “interim constitution” for an independent Scotland, which reaffirms the party’s commitment to constitutional monarchy, without a word of protest from the nationalist rank and file.

From a strategic perspective, the SNP is right to avoid getting drawn into a debate about the future of the Crown. Across Britain, including in Scotland, republicans are in the minority and the monarchy remains popular. In the run up to the referendum, the Yes campaign would rather talk about child poverty and income inequality than get bogged down in a publicity battle with the right-wing press over what is, for most people, a relatively settled and uncontroversial feature of British life. Besides, there is nothing Better Together – an organisation based on the inherently conservative premise that change, however modest, involves too much unnecessary risk – would love more than the chance to accuse nationalists of plotting to ditch the Queen after a Yes vote.

Yet, as Ian Bell pointed out over the weekend, monarchism doesn’t sit easily with the principle of popular sovereignty. If, as Sturgeon’s draft constitution states, “All state power and authority accordingly derives from … the sovereign will of the people”, why does Scotland need a “sovereign” monarch, other than to perform certain anachronistic constitutional rituals? Moreover, it’s not entirely clear how SNP leaders reconcile their opposition to the “outdated, unelected” House of Lords with their enthusiasm (of sorts) for the equally outdated and unelected Royal family. Aren’t both these institutions part of the same creaking constitutional structure Scotland so desperately needs to escape?

However, the SNP’s deferential approach to the monarchy amounts to more than just pre-referendum positioning. In 2011, the party was campaigning for responsibility over the Crown Estate Commission's (CEC) Scottish functions to be devolved to Holyrood on the reasonable grounds it would “allow proper management of [Scotland’s] important marine assets [and] ensure local communities benefit from the development of offshore renewables.” Naturally, the UK government wasn’t having any of it. So, as Andy Wightman highlighted at the time, 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, thereby creating an “obstacle” to any transfer of power. Osborne’s shameless political manoeuvre worked – the SNP raised absolutely no objections and has, since then, kept its demands for the devolution of the CEC relatively quiet.

There are, of course, plenty of people in the broader Yes campaign who can’t stand the monarchy and resent the SNP’s backing for it. On Sunday, the Greens’ Patrick Harvie said he viewed the process of drawing up a permanent Scottish constitution after independence as an opportunity to “make the case for an elected head of state”, a sentiment echoed by Robin McAlpine of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and (albeit in less diplomatic terms) Colin Fox of the SSP.

But we know where the socialist left stands. The really interesting thing will be the response of the SNP membership to the constitutional possibilities opened up by independence. Will they settle for the pragmatic royalism of their leaders, or demand a more radical – and authentically democratic – alternative? I suspect the calls for a Scottish republic will grow measurably louder following a Yes vote this September. At the same time, though, the SNP has thrived in part because of its remarkable discipline. One thing I am confident of: the Stuarts won’t be making a return any time soon.

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

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser