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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder