Is the SNP really trying to break up with the Queen?

News that the Scottish government could withhold money from QEII has been exaggerated, but there is a political point to the SNP defining itself against the monarchy.

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Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon’s predecessor as Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, was a big fan of the Queen. We know this because he told us, repeatedly, for years.

As far back as 2007 he was telling everyone that in an independent Scotland “the Queen will be Elizabeth of Scotland in the same way as she is Queen today in Canada, Australia and a host of other Commonwealth nations”.

Then there was the time in 2011 when he said he “loved” the royal wedding (and that if he’d had time, he would have plastered Edinburgh in royal colours to celebrate). He also said that Scots were more disposed to like the Queen, because the royals didn’t govern the Scottish class structure in the way they do in England:

There is a better case for an English republic than a Scottish one,” he says. Mainstream Scotland, in his view, is not anti-monarchy, because the royals don’t define a Scots class structure as they do in England. “I’m not saying Scotland is a classless society,” he says, “but I still think inequalities in Scotland are not generally linked to the monarchy.”

Then at a Yes rally in Edinburgh in 2014, he assured his supporters that “she will be proud to be Queen of Scots as indeed we indeed have been proud to have her as the monarch”.

It was all part of his pitch. In his vision, Scotland would keep the Queen, the pound, the EU, and its historical connections to the “familiar entity” of Great Britain, but also be an independent nation.

Fast forward to May 2015, and after her party lost the independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon is fighting a general election as the leader of an anti-austerity, insurgent party. The Queen doesn’t get a great deal of mention on the campaign trail, but there is surely a lingering sense of annoyance among Yes activists that the Queen told voters to “think very carefully about the future” prior to the referendum ballot – a remark that has been perceived as an attempt to influence the outcome in some quarters – plus the fact that she apparently “purred” after hearing of the No campaign’s win.

Today’s front pages seem to show that Sturgeon is finally getting her revenge on the monarch. The Times was one of several to splash on the story that Scotland wouldn’t be making its contribution to the Queen’s coffers (aka the Sovereign Grant) after 2016:

Alex Salmond and his desire to cover Arthur’s Seat in royal wedding flags seems a long time ago.

Except, of course, it isn’t what it seems. A very efficient briefing operation by the palace got the story on the frontpages the same day that news of the £150m refit required at Buckingham Palace made headlines – Nicola Sturgeon might be a raving republican for all we know, but this isn’t her doing.

And as Jamie Ross has explained over at Buzzfeed, under the current system the Scottish government couldn’t stop paying for the Queen even if it wanted to.

It all stems from the greater devolution coming into effect in Scotland from 2016, under which the Crown Estates will no longer just be controlled from London. The Treasury uses the revenue from these estates to work out how much money the Queen should get every year – it’s expressed as 15 per cent of the total, or about £40m this year.

The key point is that the Crown Estate revenue is a guide, not a direct transfer – as per the Sovereign Grant, which replaced the Civil List system in 2011. Whatever the Scottish government chooses to do with the actual money from crown lands, the UK Treasury would still be able to set the Queen’s grant at 15 per cent of the total.

On top of that, as Jamie points out, there’s a clause meaning it is actually illegal for the Scottish government to force the rest of the UK to start paying proportionately more for things:

Additionally, the Smith Report – which outlines how further devolution to Scotland will work – has a “no detriment” agreement in it, which says that, whatever the Scottish government does with its new powers, it cannot cause people in the rest of the UK to end up paying proportionately more for things such as the royal family.

So, whether Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP want to break up with the Queen or not is irrelevant – under the current system, they can’t. But that isn’t going to stop the monarchy becoming a political football as the devolution and independence debate rumbles on. As the SNP grapples with its new status as a party of government in Holyrood and the third-largest group in Westminster, it has to find new ways in which to burnish its anti-establishment credentials. Taking on the Queen is just the start.

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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