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The monarchy debate is an opportunity not a threat

No longer are we bored united. The heatwave seems to have sparked life into the constitutional debate, with folk prepared to discuss some of the meat and bones of what independence might mean.

While a discourse on whether an independent Scotland should keep the monarchy is not quite an everyday issue for voters, it’s tangible enough for folk to take an interest. Especially when there is now a guaranteed lineage well into the next century.

The arrival of the newest member of the Firm reminds us all that this is a dynasty with longevity: some will be content with this state of affairs, but many others, who don’t ordinarily make the link between the Royal Family and its constitutional role, will have paused to digest this. This is exactly the purpose of a debate on our future – it creates a space for a blether about big things and wee, and gets us thinking about who we are and what sort of country we’d like to be.

Has the arrival of the new royal baby signalled a similar debate down south? Not if the media can help it. There was a great piece in yesterday’s Sunday Herald on how broadcast media, in particular, colluded in the construction of a narrative around the birth of Prince George which bore little resemblance to reality. The Scottish media might have mixed motives in encouraging such a debate within the context of the independence referendum, but let’s at least credit them with doing us a service. Different opinions have been invited, encouraged and given a place.

Indeed, the opportunity to let opinion flourish is exactly the point of Yes Scotland. Even if it doesn’t seem to think so. Its somewhat sniffy response to Dennis Canavan’s views on the monarchy missed the point completely. Its role is not to repeat or create a policy position but to welcome the debate itself.

Yes Scotland should have been much more effusive and enthusiastic in welcoming its Chairman’s comments – and encouraged him to speak in that capacity. It should have marked out the difference between here and there. “Isn’t it great that the referendum offers us the opportunity to discuss these weighty matters? Isn’t it good that we are all getting the chance to think about what kind of country we want to be? That’s what independence offers – the right and responsibility to consider and choose how we want to be governed. With the monarchy, that might involve a referendum at some point but that would be your decision – Scotland’s decision – to take. Polls suggest we’d opt to keep the Queen or King as our head of state, but at the moment, we don’t get to say how we run our affairs. That’s what independence offers. Isn’t it exciting?”

And it is exciting. Indeed, the response of Better Together implies just how so. Its dead hand attempt to dismiss Dennis Canavan’s views suggests it sees such opportunities as threats. Because the last thing the proponents of the status quo want is for people to start questioning the central thrust of its argument, especially within its own camp. For there are many, particularly from Labour ranks, who share his views: a debate on issues which highlights what independence offers is clearly a dangerous thing.

The concern is that the yes camp doesn’t seem to know how to seize such moments. Where’s the Yes Scotland online blog on this topic, with a range of views represented? Where’s the threading of a narrative combining the monarchy issue with other topical news items?

In the week that the hereditary right to rule was reinforced – a concept that rubs against the idea that we are all Jock Tamson’s bairns – we also learned that some of the richest landowners in Scotland whose position is maintained partly through significant public subsidy, also have the right to keep that information from us. Not only is it wrong that they as individuals, and not their businesses, benefit from taxpayers’ money, but worse, we, the body bountiful, don’t even get to know whom our largesse benefits.

This is the Scotland we currently live in, where a tiny percentage of very wealthy people get to preserve their status on account of who they are and to whom they were born. I know few Scots who are comfortable with this state of affairs and most would opt for a different set-up. The opportunity to change who owns Scotland, how Scotland is owned and who benefits materially from our rich resource base is fundamental to the concept of independence.

That’s the logic which underpins the idea of an oil fund for future generations. And it is implicit in Yes Scotland’s thumbnails on why people should vote yes and in all its literature. But it’s all too subtle and needs to be stitched together in much more emphatic fashion, with a range of voices encouraged, fostered and welcomed.

The point is that with independence, there is no official line, no single policy direction, but a range of choices available to Scotland to take. And therein lies the rub. Not only do we need to convince ourselves that we have the confidence and capability as a country to take the opportunities independence offers, but we need a campaign exhibiting the same qualities to get us there.

Vote! Should the Queen be Head of State in independent Scotland?

There are many big issues to be resolved which relate to independence.  Whether or not we keep the monarchy isn’t one of them.

Nonetheless, it seems to matter sufficiently to the SNP that there has been considerable airbrushing of the party’s policy on the matter, whenever it is asked to comment, which is far too often.  But then the meeja was always pretty good at focusing on minutiae when it suited them.

These are the kind of issues upon which the SNP has a safety first approach:  we don’t do or say anything that creates a raft of negative headlines, puts us on the backfoot, or creates a lot of noise and fury when what we need is light and calm.  Sometimes, though, good intentions get forgotten, why is why last weekend, the SNP felt sufficiently rattled to rush out a media release responding to Willie Rennie’s calls for clarity on its position on the monarchy post-independence.

“…an SNP spokesperson confirmed that the 1997 conference resolution calling for a referendum on the monarchy is not the policy post-devolution – which since the
Scottish Parliament was established in 1999 is now for a referendum on a White Paper setting out the full detail of independence, including the Queen as head of state.

The spokesperson went on to say “Since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the SNP’s policy is now for a referendum on a White Paper setting out the full
details of independence – which will be published in November 2013, with the referendum taking place in autumn 2014 – and will include the SNP’s long-standing policy for the Queen and her successors to be head of state“.

This will come as news to many in the SNP – I’ve blogged on this aspect before, but the central thrust of the assertion – that the SNP changed its position on the monarchy post-indy in 1999 – is also inaccurate.

In the party’s manifesto for the 2001 UK General Election, in the vision for independence section, it stated:

with independence, the Queen and her successors will remain as Head of State of Scotland, as defined within the written Constitution, subject to the democratic consent of the people in a referendum“.

Sometime in the early noughties, the party also produced a wee booklet called Talking Independence for its members and activists.  It’s great – it actually provides answers to some of the thorny issues and negative propositions put by (among others) bored journalists on an almost daily basis.  I’d heartily recommend that all current spokespeople seek it out and refer to it when writing media releases in the future.

This is what it says in response to the question “will the Queen be Head of State?”

The SNP proposes that the Queen and her successors remain Head of State, in the way that she is presently Head of State in fifteen other independent Commonwealth countries. The constitution which the SNP favours will define the powers of the Monarch, removing a number of her present powers, though she will still confirm Parliament’s nomination of a Prime Minister…. If, in the future, the people of Scotland wished to change these arrangements, they would be free to do so by amending the constitution through a referendum, and it is the SNP’s policy that the issue should be tested by such a referendum once Independence is fully in effect. Ultimately, the decision rests with the people of Scotland.” (bold emphasis my own)

I’m not sure what current SNP spokespeople find so troublesome about this: it seems to make perfect sense to me.  We keep the Queen as Head of State as a transitional arrangement until the people of independent Scotland get round to holding a vote on it.  Thereafter, the monarchy might – or might not – continue to provide us with our Head of State.

Now, there are some who argue – and they do – that this is all flotsam and jetsam.  Booby traps being set by the meeja to hold Scotland back, to divert the SNP’s attention from the big prize.  All focus must now be on winning the yes vote;  everything else is a distraction.  When directed at the likes of me, the inference is to keep schtum and let these things pass.

Aye but.

For one, it ain’t the likes of me making an issue out of a non-issue.  At the time of the SNP’s debate on the matter – which I remember well – I was one of the most disinterested parties in the room.  I agree there are much bigger issues to be talking about in the run up to the referendum.  There are much more pressing matters to be considered and addressed with independence.  But in the absence of the SNP – and anyone else – talking about these or engaging a debate on things like what a progressive taxation policy might look like, the kind of welfare state we might fashion, how having all the levers of government at our disposal might allow us to take a different approach to tackling poverty and inequality, a vacuum is created and filled.

And if the SNP is determined to make this an issue, then there are some – myself included – who might just be prepared to disagree with what the official, airbrushed policy on the monarchy post-indy should be.

This may come as a surprise to some, but I ain’t no royalist.  I do not want the monarchy to remain as Head of State of independent Scotland beyond what is necessary to ensure an orderly transition.  But if that means she and her successors get to hang around for ten years and more while we sort other stuff out, then so be it.  Ultimately though, I absolutely believe – and will continue to uphold – that it is the Scottish people’s place to decide and support that there should be a referendum on the matter.  Sovereignty to the people an’ awr’at.

So let’s start the ball rolling with our ain wee poll.  It’s only a bit of fun, it won’t even be representative, but it will allow all those frustrated republicans out there to make their views known.  Maybe.

Salmond must respect sovereignty of the party and the people

It’s one of Alex Salmond’s touchstones, and rightly so.  “The SNP’s primary loyalty is to the people of Scotland in line with the Scottish constitutional tradition of the sovereignty of the people.”  Every time it is uttered, it makes SNP members’ hearts sing.

The people’s right to decide was used by the SNP leadership to justify the need to hold a referendum on independence.  It makes perfect sense,  even if many fundamentalist activists were discomfited by the policy shift at the time. Moreover, it gave the party – and still does – a fantastic attack line against Unionist parties who would prefer to deny Scotland’s right to choose.

In 1997, the SNP leadership was on the wrong side of this sovereignty principle at the debate on the monarchy’s future at the Rothesay conference.  After independence, it would be the right of the people to decide if they wanted to keep the Queen as the Head of State, thus a referendum should be held.   Like the other referendum policy (which came later), it has an undeniable logic: what the people want, the people get.

Now, the SNP finds itself in the pinch-me territory of gearing up for an independence referendum and persuading the Scottish people to vote yes. Suddenly, the totems of union and what to do about them matter.  And as George Kerevan points out, there are a lot of big ticket policy numbers to be sorted before the question is put to the Scottish people.

The SNP, focused as it has been and had to be in recent years, on the politics and policies of devolution, has allowed many independence-related matters to wither on the vine.  Yet, if the SNP is to win the referendum, it needs to develop its platform and this will involve the airing and resolving of a number of “wicked questions”, questions that hitherto the party and in particular, its leader, Alex Salmond has been content to gloss over.  Albeit for sound tactical reasons.

One area that should not need revisiting is the party’s stance on the monarchy.  In 1997, then SNP Depute Leader, the late Allan Macartney, produced a draft constitution for independent Scotland. It stated: ” the Queen and her successors will remain Head of State for as long as the Scottish people so wish…”  The late Sir Neil MacCormick undertook a further constitutional exercise in 2001-02.   This document states “the Head of State shall be Queen Elizabeth and her successors as determined by the law of Scotland” and the statement is footnoted:  “the SNP is committed to holding a referendum in the term of office of the first independent Parliament of Scotland on whether to retain the monarchy”.

Yet, today, in his Scotland on Sunday column, Kenny Farquharson reveals that the party’s policy on the monarchy appears to have changed.  “Since the  establishment of the Scottish Parliament, what we now propose is a referendum on our proposal for an independent Scotland, to be held towards the end of this parliament, which will include the long-standing policy for the Queen and her successors to be head of state.”  Apparently, “the policy to retain the monarchy dates back to the founding of the SNP in 1934″.

This will come as news to many SNP members, not only the suggestion that there was a coupling of the referendum on independence with the one on the monarchy, but also that the policy arrived at in 1997 is no longer.  Such revisionism is a cause for concern.

At the time, there were many in the party who thought it was a lot of fuss about nothing.  There would be more important things to worry about post-independence, argued some.  Hear, hear.

But it is one of the few areas where the party has a coherent, clear cut policy on a post-union issue.  The key part of the party’s policy refers to Her Majesty’s successors:  the Scottish people may be less keen to thirl themselves to future Kings and Queens.  King Charles may be much less palatable than Queen Elizabeth.  Whatever, it is the people’s sovereign right to decide.

And this is the crux of the matter.  Sovereignty is fundamental;  it is not a pick and mix principle.  And if it’s good enough for the people of Scotland, it’s good enough for the people in the SNP.  Yes, being in government changes things: SNP Ministers cannot go running to the party every five minutes to get members’ views on day to day policies of devolution.  In any event, there is an instinctual and instinctive nationalist view of things that binds the membership.  They do alike because they think alike.

But such pragmatism does not, cannot apply to revising the stated will of the party on an issue that lies at the heart of the cause of independence.  As Scotland heads downhill towards independence, it is vital that the SNP makes that journey with its people and that the route taken is the one determined for the party and leadership by all its members.

For one thing, it is disrespectful.  Right now, the SNP membership is content to fall into line with Alex Salmond’s thinking and positioning on all of these big issues.   Anyone from any quarter voicing doubts or an alternative view is slapped down, especially by the ever-watchful, self-determined cyber vigilantes.   But when a leader is omnipotent is exactly the time to be magnanimous, to engage others views fully.  Such an approach ensures continuing loyalty, but to expect the membership to thole reading about the latest strategic or policy shift through newspaper inches without them growing discontented is risky.

Moreover, to demand blind loyalty at this stage in the campaign is misguided. Now is the time to hold the bunfight over all the potential trouble-making policies:  leaving divisive policy battles to later conferences may produce debate and division at exactly the wrong moment, when the party needs to portray itself united, confident and in command of the arguments.  Anything else will be seized upon and repeated ad nauseam by hostile media and political foes, threatening the possibility of a yes vote.

But this matters more than tactical considerations.  A party that allows a leader to ride rough-shod over its democratic decision-making powers and rights is in dangerous territory.  No leader should be allowed to air brush out of existence democratically determined policies, no matter what other qualities that leader has to offer.

Just as the sovereignty of the Scottish people reigns supreme, so should the sovereignty of the party.

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