The monarchy plays a largely symbolic but still dangerous and profoundly anti-democratic role within the British political system. When Walter Bagehot wrote his celebrated work on the British constitution in the nineteenth century he sought to propose ways in which Britain’s deeply unequal capitalist society could be maintained in face of demands for universal suffrage. His main proposal was to strengthen the powers of executive cabinet government and its control over an elected parliament. But he also gave a central place to monarchy. The ‘display’ of monarchy would, he argued, be critical in maintaining deference to the existing order and mobilising popular emotions for a royal ‘family’ and thereby for all gradations of rank and wealth. This manifestly remains the case today.
In addition, however, the crown also plays a potentially decisive constitutional role at moments of political crisis. It is the crown, advised by the Privy Council, which has the constitutional power to call on political leaders to form governments in circumstances of a hung parliament or where a particular administration loses its parliamentary majority. The Privy Council, largely made up of superannuated cabinet ministers, is in turn advised by senior servants and can be relied upon to seek to frustrate any attempt to create a government that would be hostile to the existing order.
The decision of the SNP to propose the continuation of the monarch as head of state in Scotland is unfortunately all of a piece with the proposal to retain Sterling as currency, to seek full membership of the EU Single Market and, most recently, to consider membership of NATO. It demonstrates the intent to govern on behalf of the financial institutions, largely based in the City of London, that own virtually every sector of Scotland’s economy – as well, it seems, of the big business interests that control its media. It would leave an independent Scotland bound to the macroeconomic policies determined by the Bank of England and unable to intervene economically in any way that contravened Single Market regulations or the new EU Stability, Coordination and Governance Treaty. And presiding would be a transformed ‘Scottish monarchy’, now burnishing its Stuart credentials and surrounded by its ‘lairds and lackeys’ from the Scottish aristocracy.
For the left this would appear to be a singularly unattractive and dangerous prospect – dangerous because it will seek to harness national identity to a reactionary project that will in turn transform the character and content of national identity itself. When Bagehot wrote of the ideological role of monarchy in undermining any democratic challenge to the existing order, he had in mind precisely such a transformation. Those sections of the Scottish left who believe that independence as framed by the SNP would somehow be the start of a process that would lead to a ‘break up of the British state’ need to face this reality.
When Michael McGahey proposed a Scottish Parliament at the 1972 Scottish Assembly, this was certainly not the kind of Scotland he had in mind or this type of constitutional structure he advocated. He called for a Scottish parliament that linked the demand of Scotland’s working people to control national resources, the country’s productive economy, to a wider class challenge to the British state and its pro-capitalist institutions, a united struggle which, as actually witnessed in the 1970s, could also change the content of national consciousness both within Scotland and the other nations of Britain.
I’ll start by declaring that this is a purely personal view and, although I have colleagues in the SNP who are also republicans, it is not party policy. The last time I looked at that, after Independence there would be a referendum at some point on whether we in Scotland have the full blown monarchy, an edited version or go for a republic. I have no problems with that, being a whole-hearted democrat.
I first ditched the whole notion of monarchy as early as nine when the Queen came to Holyrood in her Coronation year on a Round Britain Tour. But back a bit. On the announcement of the death of her father, we were rampaging to “Music with Movement” in the gym when the loudspeaker came on and we were commanded to “sit”. Then in sombre tones a BBC announcer – in the pukka Beeb cut-glass voice of the 1950s announced “The King is dead, long live the Queen”. I was quite impressed. That continued through the Coronation itself which I watched on our telly, the first in the scheme with a screen the size of a shoe box and a body the size of a tumbledrier. We kids drank lemonade through straws and the grown-ups got sherry, and it wasn’t even Christmas! Those were the days. The BBC spoke really posh, hardly anyone had a telly and it only broadcast for a few cherished hours. It was a time of privilege when we were allowed from a respectful distance to watch these special people.
But back to being nine and waiting at Holyrood Palace with my dad and brother, with our periscopes at the ready. Well there was no need for periscopes because there was only a sprinkling of people when she turned up and so I saw her eyeball to eyeball. Gone was the glamour of that coronation gown, the big crown, the sceptre and orb and there she stood, a wee wumman wi a handbag. I know because in my disappointment that’s what I said to my dad. There has been no turning back. But from that Emperors Clothes moment through my own development in life and politics, it has grown into a critical hostility to privilege and all the honours and flummery that tries to give it an alibi. Of course the royal performance/presentation continues. Give them credit they are good at the re-inventing malarkey. After the Dianna nonsense when complete strangers lemming-like threw themselves into publicity-driven grief, through Charles and Camilla’s redemption, we are now spoon-fed the William & Kate Show, the latter ironically committed like her deceased predecessor to remaining stick thin for photogenic reasons. No doubt others are mumbling that it’s about time she was pregnant.
Now none of this is personal. Wills may be a decent chap, his brother a good sort and Charles is after all ‘green’. But how far have we really moved from the fifties and the bunting and the flags? Well quite a way. Not many people will ‘out’ themselves as republicans but many are indifferent. John Lewis has Union Flag stuff everywhere – as a Scot that also gets my goat – but that aside-not many folk are buying it. Street parties in Scotland can be counted on one hand. Perhaps in their own way, people are putting together for themselves that while their jobs are gone or on the line, while fuel bills reach mortgage heights, young people have no work to go to and old people have seen the value of their savings plummet the royals, the dukes, the lords and ladies prance about in big silly hats (men and women) and yes no fascinators – far too common.
“Revolution” does not come naturally to us, but drop the royal “R” and I think we are moving in the right ( do I mean left?) direction. So while it may not be “Vive la Republique”, today of all days (this is being written onMay 7th) “Vive la France”
Christine Grahame MSP
Ever since I have been young I have been amazed at ‘job lot’ buying of political views and have tried to resist it all my life. Some political views are totems that we could all have a view on and other are less appealing – such as land reform. Monarchy is maybe the ultimate totem. We can’t fail to encounter it. From the people’s favourite magazine Hello! in the dentist surgery to documentaries on the BBC, opinions are easy to gather. For a politician looking for another political badge, especially a radical left field badge, surely polices on monarchy are even easier to create for notice.
So with a Scottish background that is as peasant as it comes, from Highland crofter classes, whose ancestors before that were descended the defeated Jacobite side it may be easy for me on many levels to allow my knee to jerk and get myself a policy on the House of Windsor, the legitimate successors of the Hanoverians. There must be shelves full of polices with a variation on the flavour ‘abolish the monarchy’ and if some other lefties feel the same this ‘job lot’ purchase could be a comfortable slide.
But hang about; Scotland wants to emulate the Scandinavian countries. The country we most identify with seek to emulate, Norway, with its impressively egalitarian left-of-centre society has, shock horror, a monarchy. As does Sweden and so does Denmark! Despite anti-monarchical types warning darkly of what this totem may say about a society, none of these three countries have become victims of the Chicken-Licken effect, namely the sky has not fallen in – quite the contrary in fact.
Some may say that I am pro monarchy because I don’t want any silly distractions from the independence debate. There is logic to their suspicion as independence is about moving political powers pertaining to Scotland from Westminster to Holyrood – it is no more complicated. However, there can be a temptation for a part of the group who want independence to get bored waiting for it and to meander into other policy areas that can block the core objective of independence. Logical as that reasoning is, it is not my reasons for being pro monarchy either, it’s more practical – why bother with a figurehead alternative?
Ireland has Michael D Higgins as its President, an impressive figure. He is an Irish Gaelic speaker and a poet – a profession more valued to the Gael than the Goill (English Speaker). However, Micheal D was impressive long before he was president and he is no more impressive now.
On Ireland; while I have mentioned my effectively Scottish peasant background, I failed for completeness to say I was half Irish. My late mother’s was from the Tipperary/Waterford area and her maternal uncles John Joe and Martin Carey got very agitated about monarchy. In the early 1920s so much so they went to fight each other over it. Not a quick box around the ears one afternoon for them; nope this passion over Kings took the serious guise of the time, with John Joe in the Free State Forces and Martin in the Irish Republican Army. A story with such a spicy label for the 1980s that my mother was in no rush to share it with anyone outside the family.
The sum achievement of Martin and John Joe’s efforts according to my mother was to keep Great Grandmother Carey awake and worried sick on moonlit nights in Munster fearing for her sons’ lives as the odd gunshot rang out. The anti–republican side won. Old Grandma Carey didn’t care. When WWII came, Ireland remained neutral despite having what some would call the ‘British King’ as head of state – such was their political independence. Today, in 2012 I have no idea quite what my granduncles fight was about in concrete terms, although the abstract a child can understand and maybe till get agitated about.
The case for monarchy is positive – it binds many countries convivially. The Queen has 16 realms, and would it not be fantastic to present Her Majesty with another realm, an independent Scotland soon? Scotland will be the 17th realm, an independent country on the world stage like Canada, Australia or New Zealand with the Queen but free of politicians and Prime Ministers (think Thatcher, Blair, Major, Cameron) from Westminster.
What is more, the Queen’s favourite place to visit when given the choice, and she has travelled the world remember, seems to be the Hebrides, so I am also a little biased. And finally if all that were not good enough, her esteemed Private Secretary’s first cousin has just been elected as an SNP councillor in Stornoway! Therefore argue about land reform and housing instead. God Save the Queen!
Angus Brendan MacNeil MP