The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

The SNP can't duck the monarchy debate forever

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

Queen Elizabeth met with SNP leader Alex Salmond in Holyrood House in Edinburgh last year
Queen Elizabeth met with SNP leader Alex Salmond in Holyrood House in Edinburgh last year. Photo: David Cheskin, AFP

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.