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29 May 2000

Royal ties that no longer bind

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

An image has come spinning out of the labyrinth of Scottish memory: Prince Charles is holding court at Holyrood Palace. The last time that happened was Christmas 1745, and the streets of Edinburgh rang with the Gaelic speech of his rebel Highland army. This time, a less dramatic but more subtle process is under way. For the first time, the heir to the throne is acting as Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In a less long-winded reality, this involves Prince Charles in very little that is practical, but it does compel him to spend a week in Scotland, a much longer period of time than he has given the place before, not counting summer hols at Balmoral and durance vile at Gordonstoun. And his non-job as Lord High Commissioner did allow him the opportunity to make a speech; rummaging through the subjunctives and the politesse, it was possible to sort out why the Prince had decided to come north.

First, he was anxious to tell us how much he loved the bens and the glens, the brochs and the lochs. He even went so far as to quote from the old 19th-century actor-manager Walter Scott, who did such a good PR job for the portly King George IV in 1822 when he turned up in Leith wearing a kilt and pink tights. “What mortal hand/Can e’er untie the filial band/That knits me to thy rugged strand?” asked his Royal Highness.

It turns out that quite a few mortal, and Scottish, hands are all too ready to untie the House of Windsor from their holiday homes in the north. The second reason for Prince Charles’s visit is that more voters in Scotland than in any other part of the United Kingdom would prefer a republic: 30 per cent want to see the monarchy abolished; and only 58 per cent of Scots, polled in January this year, want to see the monarchy continue indefinitely. With the Scottish Parliament pulling the focus away from London and the HQ of the British monarchy, and also offering a general background of successful constitutional change, it could be argued that the times are opportune for more and more Scots to begin to reject a British monarchy. Certainly, the image of Tommy Sheridan, the Scottish Socialist Party MSP, holding up a clenched fist when compelled to take the oath of allegiance at the swearing-in of the new parliament, resonated widely and warmly. Many people, and a substantial number of other MSPs, thought it plain daft to see a new, modern institution doing such an anachronistic thing as pledging feudal allegiance to the Queen.

So, Prince Charles is here to fill in the widening cracks and keep the Jocks onside. His son, Bonnie Prince William, looks like a racing certainty to come to Edinburgh University to help the Firm’s campaign; and no doubt a few cheery snaps appearing in the London Evening Standard of Wills having fun, sitting exams and being normal in the far north will help to foster a general sense of the kingdom’s unity. And the blethering classes in the London Sunday papers will write about Edinburgh in such a way as to banish the widely held view that the place is a sort of artsy Brigadoon, which appears out of the mist only once a year for the festival.

All of this seems like a highly sensible strategy for the heir to the throne to adopt if he wants to be King of what his mother is Queen, and with no tartan exceptions. But it does have two unlikely difficulties. First, Princess Anne has been cultivating the Scots for a decade, even to the extent of developing the perfect pursed expression. She is president of the Scottish Rugby Union and a fixture at Murrayfield for international matches. Opinion polling among Scots has shown that 21 per cent would prefer to have Anne as monarch, and that only 11 per cent want Charles.

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The second problem is that there is no separate honours system in Scotland, except for the highly exclusive (to ancient toffs) Order of the Thistle, to allow the monarchy to dish out favours and make the Scots feel part of the clan. The big gongs largely go to the same sort of people who got them under the Tories, and the retired postmistress from South Uist still goes to the town hall to get her MBE, 3rd class. What the royal family and their advisers might well do is create an Order of St Andrew or something similar. Given that the Scottish Parliament is unicameral and the Queen cannot send anybody to the House of Lairds, it might be sensible to give out a few ribbons and have a bit of flummery once a year across the road at Holyrood Palace. Despite their politics and background, few people have the gumption to refuse a gong when the nice letter comes from the Queen.

But all of this, however well intentioned, may not be enough, and may not be the point. Scotland needs to move on and create a better and fairer society, rather than worry about the coloured bits at the top. On 16 April 1746, Prince Charles’s Highlanders were blown to bits at Culloden. It was a tragic day for Gaelic Scotland, but it did allow Britain to move forward to a constitutional monarchy and a more democratic society. Perhaps the establishment of a new parliament will persuade Scots to be witness to another pivotal change in our politics, and begin to pull the thread that unravels the royal tapestry.

Alistair Moffat

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