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15 September 2022

Is the SNP truly committed to keeping the monarchy?

Beneath the surface, anti-royalist sentiment endures among Scottish nationalists.

By Chris Deerin

Were there Yes voters lining the streets of Edinburgh to mark the passage of the Queen’s coffin? Of course. I suspect they comprised members of the ordinary, less avidly political parts of the SNP-supporting electorate, perhaps as surprised by the depths of their own emotions as many unionists have been. They were there to pay their respects for a long life of service and steadfastness, simply obeying the instinct to be present at a moment of profound historical import. Decent people behaving decently.

This was an interesting moment for Scotland’s nationalists and for those of us who observe them. Nicola Sturgeon played her part perfectly. Her speech at Holyrood as the new King and his Queen Consort watched on was pitch-perfect. I was moved to see her gamely holding her hat to her head as she and others were buffeted by the jet engines of the giant RAF aircraft that lifted Elizabeth from Scottish soil for the final time.

Sturgeon, like other leaders of the regions and nations, seems to have spent the past week zipping around the kingdom from one ceremonial occasion to the next. It must be exhausting for everyone involved. She has done her duty, with aplomb.

And yet, something still sits uneasy about this nationalist show of fealty to the Crown. It is SNP policy, introduced by the wily Alex Salmond several decades ago, that an independent Scotland would retain the monarchy. It seemed to me then and still seems to me now that there is very little principle involved in this position. It is merely one of a series of moves calculated to soften the idea of independence for moderate Scots who may otherwise recoil from the radical roar of the truer, deeper nationalist movement.

In common with Sturgeon, leading SNP politicians stick to the message that they and their party are pro-monarchy, but many of them – as all practical, compromising politicians do on occasion – have made their peace with this position for reasons of expediency. In my experience, you don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to find anti-royalist sentiment in the SNP. Most senior nationalists grew up with a rebellious, anti-British fire in their bellies, a flame that has not quite been quenched over the years, even if it is now hidden behind politesse, smart suits and the demands of government office. The idea that the monarchy, which stands as the pinnacle of the Union, the British state, its power and its former empire, is a thing for which nationalists truly feel warmth and devotion is almost risible.

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Yet the Nats will have been watching as well as performing in recent days. Most of Scotland responded to the Queen’s death with real emotion and sadness. For many people, the coverage has been all they have watched on television, perhaps feeling those little jags of sadness and loss over and over again, thinking about their own parents and grandparents, wondering anew at the pomp and ceremony of this strange, ancient country of which they are a part, all of it reliably and elegantly relayed by the BBC.

There will be calculations running through the minds of Sturgeon and her advisers: what impact, if any, will this ostentatious display of British identity and emotionalism have on support for independence? Will the Queen’s passing gently, eventually loosen the ties more Scots feel with the UK? With this stabilising foundation stone removed, how will voters feel about the nakedly right-wing Tory government that is apparently about to unmuzzle itself at Westminster? Is the SNP really going to push for a referendum next October, which could be just a few months after Charles III’s coronation? 

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There is no real point playing the guessing game at this stage. It may well be that stability is what Scottish people want more than anything else amid global, economic, cultural and constitutional upheaval – such has proved the case so far. Equally, seeds of change may have been planted that take many years to grow to fruition.

It seems clear to me that the monarchy works fine for the UK, is too deep-rooted to be challenged, and anyway can be, as we are seeing, a great unifier. But it is hard to argue that if it didn’t exist you would, in the 21st century, invent it. 

This makes it all the stranger that the independent Scotland the SNP seeks to create – a modern, Scandi-lite, technological, compassionate, meritocratic, socially mobile state – would or should persist with such a system for very long, if at all. It would be a curious thing indeed for the party to gain its ultimate goal and still find itself hidebound to what may be the single oddest part of the British constitution.

[See also: Scotland’s long farewell to the Queen]