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10 September 2022

Why unionism needs the monarchy

The Crown and the military are still the most important symbols of Britishness.

By Helen Thompson

This article was originally published on 1 June 2022 as part of a special issue to mark the Platinum Jubilee.

Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne 70 years ago raised one of those anomalies of the Union to which there are no coherent answers. Why is she “Elizabeth II” when the Union has never had an Elizabeth as its queen before? While Elizabeth I reigned over England, Wales and Ireland,­ the monarchical Union between England and Scotland began only on her death in 1603, when her Scottish cousin James Stuart became king. 

It was not the first time this problem of styling monarchs had occurred. In the early years of the Anglo-Scottish monarchical union, there was great sensitivity about the regal histories of the two kingdoms. James VI in Scotland became James I in England. In 1689, William and Mary were offered stewardship of the English and Scottish crowns separately. And while both kingdoms had once been ruled by a Mary, William III in England was William II in Scotland. By contrast, Queen Victoria’s successor caused a major problem. In discarding the name Albert, which he had been known by when he was Prince of Wales, and becoming Edward VII, he ignored the fact that none of the six post-Norman Conquest Edwards had been king of Scotland, nor the first five the king of Ireland. As a result, he was often known simply as King Edward in Scotland. 

As the daughter of the “spare” (George VI) rather than the heir (Edward VIII), Elizabeth was not born to bear the crown. Her accession in 1952 yielded an interesting legal case brought the following year by a Scottish nationalist, John MacCormick, who argued that she should not be titled Elizabeth II in Scotland. Although the Scottish Court of Session rejected the claim, ruling that the royal prerogative covered the use of regnal numbers, the Lord President of the Court commented that he saw no reason that continuity in the parliamentary union ran through English but not Scottish constitutional history. Sixty-six years later, during the legal challenges prompted by Boris Johnson’s proroguing of parliament, this vexed issue resurfaced, and could do so again in a future independence referendum. 

[See also: What will Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy be?]

But the monarchical union has been foundational to the Anglo-Scottish parliamentary union. The origins of that second union lay in a wartime crisis in 1704-06, which allowed the Scottish parliament to exchange consent to the future Hanoverian succession for participation in England’s empire. But only when the Jacobite rebellion to reclaim the crown for the Stuarts was defeated in 1746 was the parliamentary union secure.

Now, the monarchical union persists while the parliamentary union has been partially severed by devolution. Since the Queen’s accession, increasing numbers of people have identified as Scottish, English, or Welsh rather than British, while the Irish government has taken a formal role in the governance of Northern Ireland through the North/South Ministerial Council. But throughout these changes, the Crown and the military have remained the most important symbols of Britishness, a fusion long cultivated by the Windsors around the rituals of remembrance created after the First World War.

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The Queen has done much to embody the plurality of the Union. As the granddaughter of the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, and with a summer residence at Balmoral, her personal attachment to Scotland is obvious. After the IRA murdered Lord Mountbatten and his grandson in 1979, she is also no stranger to the Union’s traumas. Rising to the symbolic demands of reconciliation, she shook hands with the former IRA commander Martin McGuinness 33 years later with a smile on her face.

Paradoxically, the monarchy has been of vital importance to the Union. This is partly because the SNP has historically recognised the distinction between the monarchical union of 1603 and the parliamentary union of 1707. Although support for the monarchy expressed in opinion polling is lower in Scotland than in England, the SNP has never committed itself to breaking the first union. In the campaign leading up to the 2014 independence referendum, Alex Salmond stressed that the “union of the crowns”, which he said had “deep historical resonance in Scotland”, would continue.

[See also: The Palace of Westminster is falling down, just like our political system]

Quite simply, unionism needs the monarchy. The danger is that the present Conservative government is too overt in deploying the Cambridges ­– titled in Scotland the Earl and Countess of Strathearn­ – as a way to strengthen support for the Westminster institutions. This opens the Crown to the kind of attack on royal political interference launched by Salmond after Prince William’s meeting with Gordon Brown in June 2021, shortly after Brown had set up a new campaign to protect the Union.

The Union rests on ambiguity. Symbolically, its unity is best rendered when the historical conflicts from which it emerged are acknowledged as part of that unity – as, for example, on Remembrance Sunday, when the music at the Cenotaph includes an 18th-century Irish rebel song and a Jacobite tune about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s retreat to Skye.

Like the Union, the monarchy works when it can, in its complexity, simply be. In her stoicism, the Queen gives a near permanent sense that she accepts that puzzle, navigating between the different personas required of her. How well her temperament has served the Union will become clear.

[See also: What will happen when the Queen dies?]

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special