Scotland: New Country, same currency, same Queen?

The Scottish nationalist movement meets the monarchists


Andrew Milligan / Keystone Press

One of the minor annoyances of being a monarchist is the way the royal family is still sometimes lampooned as a gang of inbred German princelings. This was fair in the time of Queen Victoria, but few seem to notice that the present sovereign’s mother grew up in the spooky Shakespearean precincts of Glamis Castle. The man no one expected to become George VI took a Scottish bride, not suspecting the result would be to add a strong literal streak of Scottishness to a lineage whose German side was already mesmerized by the romance of Highland wilderness and traditions.

The royals have consciously tried to stay anchored in Scotland, where the Prince of Wales went to public school and his son attended university. But has the effort borne fruit? The Scottish parliament is now dominated by the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), creating an awkward tension between state and Crown that is tearing open. The SNP is widely perceived as republican; it has republican intellectual roots and formally republican component organizations. But Scotland itself still tilts monarchist on the whole, and it greeted the arrival of the master of Strathearn (the new Prince George’s Scottish courtesy title) with enthusiasm.

The SNP’s leader, First Minister Alex Salmond, has been working hard to keep the monarchy from becoming an issue in the approaching 2014 independence referendum. He is not having much luck. On July 28, Dennis Canavan, a pre-Blairite Labour MP who was later tossed out of the party and sat as a star independent in the Scottish parliament, told BBC Scotland that if the yes-to-independence side wins the 2014 referendum vote, a second vote on retaining the monarchy should follow.

“In an independent Scotland,” Canavan said, “the people should be given an early opportunity to decide whether they want a hereditary head of state or an elected head of state. A hereditary head of state is an affront to democracy and a complete anachronism in a modern 21st-century democracy.” Canavan emphasized that he was speaking “in a personal capacity,” and it would probably not be a big deal either way . . . if he were not the official chairman of the yes campaign.

Salmond, as he seeks to become head of an independent Commonwealth government like Canada’s, faces a fascinating problem. He must build a coalition for independence that includes both moderates and crusty old fighting republicans like Canavan. The republican left within his own party, and in other secessionist parties like the Greens and the Socialists, scorns Salmond’s effusive enthusiasm for the Queen. Radicals like Canavan believe that if Scotland is going to split the United Kingdom, it might as well get rid of the kings along with the Union.

But Salmond doesn’t want Scottish independence to seem like a risky utopian project. At every turn he reassures Scottish voters that everything would continue much as before, only slightly nicer, with the Scots masters in their own house. This is not even his first clash of this kind with Canavan; in May, Canavan came out in favour of a new Scottish currency, contradicting the SNP’s stated intention of remaining in a currency union with the rump U.K. (A currency union is what most economists favour, but if Scotland kept the pound it would be leaving a major lever of its economy with the Bank of England and Mark Carney.)

Salmond’s attachment to the monarchy may be more sincere than he is usually given credit for. In May 2011 he remarked in an interview with the British magazine Prospect that, “There is a better case for an English republic than a Scottish one.” Historically, the first minister argued, “inequalities in Scotland are not generally linked to the monarchy.” For better or worse, however, Salmond’s conservatism doesn’t seem to be helping the argument for independence. The SNP won 44 per cent of national first-choice votes in its 2011 Scottish election victory, but the yes side has never broken through 40 per cent in any major opinion poll on secession.

The “no” supporters say their opponents are papering over uncertainty about the consequences of a yes vote. Even without possible fights over the Crown and the currency, there are open questions about independent Scotland’s share of the national debt, its precise status in the European Union, and its ability to underwrite public services as generously as the U.K. does. There is a long road from today to Sept. 18, 2014, but Alex Salmond may be destined to be Scotland’s René Lévesque: a statesman better loved than his cause.

On the web: For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at macleans.ca/colbycosh


Scotland: New Country, same currency, same Queen?

  1. My own Scottish coworkers (we have an office in Edinburgh) make a great distinction between people voting SNP because they think that they’re the best ones to hold government, and actually supporting independence. Indeed, quite a few of them subscribe to the “Salmond doesn’t actually want independence, but he has to have this referendum to satisfy the party” theory.

  2. Actually the “gang of inbred German princelings” are descended from James VI of Scotland and his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. James married his daughter Elizabeth Stuart to the Elector Palatine and when James’ direct Protestant line failed after Queen Anne, it went to the Elector of Hanover whose mother was the youngest daughter of Elizabeth Stuart.

    • Edward VII’s father was German.
      Victoria’s mother was German.
      The mother of George IV and William IV was German.
      George III’s mother was German.
      George II’s mother was German.
      George I’s father was German.

      So basically another German half was added in every single generation from the assumption of the throne by George I (r. from 1714) to the death of Edward VII (d. 1910).

      Taking George I as half-German, and every new addition as fully German (which doubtless isn’t quite fair), that would make Edward VII 63/64ths German.

      That’s pretty German.

  3. In reality the SNP leadership and the monarchy are on excellent terms. HM and Salmond chat animatedly on public occasions. Both share a passion for horses and horse racing. Salmond is a regular guest at Balmoral.All of which gets right up the noses of Unionists who would dearly love their to be the imaginary tensions the writer so assiduously conjures up.

    Readers need to bear in mind the vastly different constitutional principles of Scotland and England. The Scottish core principle is that the people are sovereign and choose their rulers. As indicated by the fact that the Queen is Queen of Scots, not as often wrongly called Queen of Scotland. She reigns so long as the Scottish public want her to reign. A distinction the monarchy has faithfully maintained for example by flying the Scottish Royal Ensign when in Scotland. Long before the SNP rose to power. The Duke of Rothesay uses his Scottish title in Scotland and reverts to Prince Charles when not in Scotland.

    In England the Queen is Head of the Church of England. In Scotland HM sits in the Visitors Gallery when she visits the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Likewise, the Scottish Parliament does not go cap in hand to hear the royal speech, the Queen addresses the Parliament from the floor of the Parliament. HM is much more “first among equals” in Scottish life and the public relations to the monarchy are much more akin to the open, relaxed friendliness seen in Scandinavia with their monarchs. We like the low key approach.

    For these and other cultural reasons most Scots are fairly relaxed about the continuation of the monarchy. What we dislike is the strong ties in England to excessive deference, privilege, over 700 unelected Lords having a major say in legislation and the jingoistic excesses of the Jubilee etc (which went almost entirely uncelebrated in Scotland not from lack of respect, but for lack of appetite for inappropriate over the top emotional excess)

    So, for example, as a republican in principle, I will continue to accept the monarch as Head of State until the next one appears; whereupon I and others will decide to organise a vote in self governing Scotland, or quietly allow the status quo to continue.

  4. Correction “Scottish Royal Standard” mostly – the Ensign on naval occasions.

  5. As much as I love kissing women who are Irish, I think breaking away from the British Empire was a mistake for Ireland. And it didn’t do the British Empire any good.

    Nationalists are not so much people who haven’t studied history as they are people who study it selectively.

    Scots should above all tend to their gardens.

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