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17 May 2022

The radical potential of Scotland’s disenchantment with the monarchy

Scotland’s nascent republicanism leans towards liberalism and conservatism, but it has truly transformative potential.

By Rory Scothorne

As the folk song “Scottish Breakaway” puts it: “Ta-ta tae Charlie’s maw.” Seventy years after Elizabeth Windsor inherited the throne, support for the monarchy in Scotland is among the lowest in the not-so-United Kingdom according to a poll by the British Future think tank. Just 45 per cent of Scots want to keep the royals “for the foreseeable future”, with 36 per cent ready to get rid of them altogether as soon as the Queen’s stint ends. Her platinum jubilee won’t flutter much bunting north of the border: while over two thirds of people in England (and 73 per cent in Wales) are interested in the forthcoming celebrations, less than half of Scots feel the same.

Scots are not alone in cooling on the crown; ethnic minorities across the UK are similarly disinterested, and young people even more so. But Scotland’s relative republicanism offers a counterpoint to the common unionist claim that Scotland and England are broadly united in attitudes, despite obvious political divergence. As I’ve written before, the monarchy is not a quirky add-on to politics and society; it is a fundamental part of how power and culture stick together across these isles, for it weaves the state’s conservative constitution into the popular imagination and invests our deeply unequal social structures with pseudo-familial legitimacy. It matters if – and where – things are becoming unstuck.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Scottish disenchantment with the monarchy is a sign of national radicalism. Last week, at the Royal Society of Edinburgh of all places, Professor James Mitchell – one of the UK’s leading experts in public policy and constitutional politics – delivered the inaugural Scottish Election Study annual lecture on the question “How radical is Scotland?” Surveying 50 years of Scottish election studies, Mitchell emphasised the paradoxical small-C conservatism of Scotland’s anti-Conservatism, noting that the timidity of Scottish politicians in tackling Scotland’s own inequalities is a better guide to the public’s real preferences than the folklore of Red Clydeside.

While this kind of scepticism remains vital in a political culture prone to self-satisfaction, it’s also not particularly novel. Indeed, challenging the “myth of radical Scotland” has become something of a cliché in itself, and I suspect that the efforts of public intellectuals to vanquish the myth are now among its most vital means of reproduction. Scottish radicalism’s debunking-industrial complex is at least half a century old, and has never really improved upon Tom Nairn’s 1968 essay in the New Left Review, “The Three Dreams of Scottish Nationalism”. Before Scotland even had its own election studies, Nairn denounced “the common myth of Scottish Left-ness”, insisting that “Scotland’s gritty sense of equality” had more to do with Calvinism than socialism, expressing “the democracy of souls before the All Mighty, rather than an explosive, popular effort to do anything”.

[See also: Stalling Scottish independence would strengthen the cause]

Nairn’s argument has required some revisions; Scottish nationalism has not turned out to be as culturally reactionary as he predicted – an SNP-led “junta of corporal-punishers and Kirk-going cheese-parers” in Edinburgh. In his lecture, Mitchell reflected on the decline of the Liberal Party in the early 20th century, whose electoral fortunes waned even as liberalism became increasingly popular across political life; he suggested that something similar has happened with the Scottish Conservatives, whose totemic unpopularity reinforces a political culture that has become deeply resistant to change. But one major difference between now and Nairn’s time is surely the triumph of social liberalism in Scotland, some of which – disrupting long-established conventions around everything from sexuality and gender to drugs and criminal justice – is still perceived as either dangerously or thrillingly radical by powerful sections of Scottish society.

This genuine progressivism coexists with a stifling passivity around Scottish economic structures, which continue to generate lethally high levels of inequality and insecurity. If “conservatism” means resistance to change, Scotland’s globalised economy is not a particularly conservative structure: on the contrary, part of the problem is that it subjects society to endless change at the mercy of forces far beyond our control. One of the main reasons Scots dislike the Tories so much is that we blame them for letting this structural radicalism rip through industrial Scotland. 

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Extricating ourselves from those structures would be at least temporarily harder than simply enduring them: “conservatism” is a perfectly good way of describing Scots’ dislike of ceaseless transformation, and their reluctance to make a transformative leap in defiance of it – a paradox that also explains the endless ambiguity over independence.

But conservatism cannot be disentangled from the defence of power – in the words of the political theorist Corey Robin, it comes down to “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back”. It’s true that Scotland once had considerable power within the UK, thanks in large part to the relative strength and self-confidence of its urban middle and working classes, secured via empire, education and industry and often mediated through the Labour Party; the success of the SNP and demands for independence clearly represent a degree of nostalgia for this kind of big, powerful voice on the British and even global stage.

But that kind of power is long gone, and reclaiming it can’t feasibly motivate the new forces and issues that have broken into mainstream Scottish politics since Thatcherism: young people, women and LGBTQ+ people in particular. Conservatism also doesn’t explain one of the more exciting policy habits of successive Scottish governments, which is a tendency towards the free and increasingly universal provision of services, from personal care for the elderly to prescriptions, tuition fees and sanitary products. If there is a truly “radical” component of Scottish politics it is this decommodifying populism, which helps to cultivate the belief – so alien to neoliberalism – that it is possible to exist as something other than a subject of market forces. It also gives an everyday substance to Scotland’s embryonic republicanism, allowing people to experience their equal, universal citizenship as a practical entitlement rather than an abstract set of rights. Thanks to Scotland’s devolved franchise legislation, that citizenship is also increasingly open to all who live here rather than a tool of ethnic exclusion.

Neither conservative nor radical but social democratic, then? The SNP – officially a “social democratic” party – would like to think so, but there’s a catch. Scotland’s enlightened logic of citizenship may offer an expanding basket of public goods, but it also avoids the all-important leap from the political to the economic sphere that gives social democracy its substance. As citizens, Scots encounter a state that presents itself as benevolent, caring and generous; but they enter their citizenship from another, more fundamental realm – one in which they are already divided by their position in the economy, where they are no less exploited or unequal than the English. It’s no use having access to free university tuition if you don’t make it to university in the first place, especially if the further education system has been underfunded and overcentralised at the same time. Free prescriptions are small consolation if you’re on the wrong side of Scotland’s wide class-based health inequalities. And free bus travel for young people is too easily cancelled out if you’re travelling to jobs in which real wages are plummeting, to be spent in supermarkets where prices are soaring.

This hard separation of a progressive public realm from a regressive and class-bound private sphere is neither conservative, social democratic nor radical – it is, however, textbook liberalism. Scotland is one of the few countries left in the world where liberalism is genuinely popular across both government and the electorate, with almost no need for any legitimising gestures in alternative ideological directions. The strength and hegemony of Scottish liberalism is in part the consequence of a national culture with liberalism at its heart, forged over centuries of close correspondence between liberals and nationalists. But it is also reinforced by devolution, which builds the separation outlined above into the constitution itself. Even if it wanted to, the Scottish government could not make a radical foray into the labour market or the structure of the economy without powers that are currently reserved for Westminster. If Scotland seems conservative, it is because liberalism and devolution are ultimately conservative; if Scotland needs radical solutions to its problems, it will have to go beyond both, into a republicanism with some real social force behind it.

[See also: Scotland’s cosmopolitan turn]

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