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.

20 thoughts on “Salmond must respect sovereignty of the party and the people

  1. Interesting turn of phrase Burd, “downhill to independence.” Most people I know refer to a struggle to achieve an objective as going up hill, and that the achievement of it is the summit. That you choose to view this as a negative achievement, as gain independence from England we shall, exposes you as the rider of two horses, you know what happens next.
    This is a non story as Yes Scotland is asking us to vote yes to dissolve the union of 1707 that has sod all to do with the monarchy who were in union for 104 years previous. What happens there after is in the hands of the Scottish voters, not the SNP or any one else. But then you knew all that. You are quite blatantly hedging your bets.

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  3. I was the person who in 1997 composed and proposed and got passed the resolution that there should be a referendum on the monarchy within the first term of an independent Scottish Parliament. So if anybody should be cheesed off at the SNP’s apparently putting this policy on the back burner it should be me.

    Yet I’m not too bothered.

    I don’t think this recent change of mood on the part of the SNP leadership is to do with any perceived monarchist trait in the Scottish electorate. It’s about the negotiations which will follow a “Yes” vote. Even after a “Yes” vote the UK Government will still in practice have to agree to let us go.

    When Ireland became independent in the 1920s, virtually 100% of their electorate wanted a republic. Yet this turned out to be non-negotiable as far as the UK side was concerned and Ireland had to stay with the monarchy until after the Second World War.

    I think retaining the monarchy meantime (and, significantly, the policy of having a referendum has not been officially rescinded) is about putting as few hurdles as possible in the way of the future negotiations about independence. There are people in the British establishment prepared to go to the wire over the issue of the monarchy.

    And if there are any republicans thinking of voting “No” because the monarchy is still up there I would ask them what they imagine our chances are of ever having a republic as long as we’re still within the UK.

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  5. Correction. The last should be Jul 2011.

  6. I’ve raised the matter of the SNP’s policy in relation to the monarchy on several discussion forums over the last six months and witnessed significant confusion among nationalists as to what that policy actually is.

    I’m an independence supporter but not an SMP member. Nevertheless, it concerns me that:

    (a) the policy was changed to what it is now;
    (b) it was changed without consulting the party;
    (c) some SNP members are unaware of how, when and why: and
    (d) some SNP members say that none of this matters.

    Irrespective of your views on the monarchy, this does matter and it is not part of better. Please correct me if any of the following is wrong.

    1997 – SNP conference in Rothesay determines policy to hold a post-independence referendum on monarchy. Salmond argued against but said the leadership would respect the wishes of the party.(Torrance, Mugwump, July 2011).

    Mar 2002 – Alasdair Allan’s booklet ‘Talking Independence’ states that the SNP proposes that the monarch remains head of state but SNP policy is to hold a referendum once independence is fully in effect.(

    Sep 2002 – Publication of MacCormick’s Draft Constitution for an Independent Scotland states that a referendum on monarchy to be held in the first term of an independent parliament. (Constitutional Commission).

    2003 – SNP election manifesto mentions a referendum on monarchy but silent timescale. This commitment is abandoned after election defeat. (RevStu, No Parliament for All Season, LPW).

    2005 – This and all subsequent SNP manifestos ditched the pledge. (RevStu, No Parliament for All Seasons, LPW).

    Jul 2007 – SNP replies to a question from Kenny Farquharson that “what we now propose is a referendum on our proposal for an independent Scotland…which will include the long-standing policy for the Queen and her successors to be head of state”. (Torrance, Mugwump).

    • I agree which is why I wrote the post originally. One document you haven’t cited is Allan Macartney’s Constitution which also asserts right of Scottish people to choose.

      • Thanks for the reply. I’ll return this matter later – it would be churlish to puruse it today of all days.

  7. Folk will know my stance on these matters very well. But I was heartened to read and later hear Salmond’s words at the riding ceremony. I agree with the strategy. It’s really the only sensible tack at this historic time.

    It’s not a good principle to attack on too many fronts at once, and given that Queen Elizabeth opposed devolution during the first Scottish referendum on the subject (and we cannot wholly be sure what damage that did behind the scenes at the time), and given that her chosen successor is currently doing the rounds to shore up the monarchy across the commonwealth, we would do well to point to that ongoing, and (from her perspective) relatively successful union, regardless of parliamentary differences across her dominions, and flog it for everything it is worth.

    This is especially significant given that she is reported to have been discussing with Cameron what to do about Scotland’s constitutional future. It cannot be overstated enough that there are tens of thousands of organised loyalists, with significant capital, community presence, extra financial backing if necessary, with a direct link to the establishment, and then on top of that there is the soft power of the many hundreds of thousands of royalists still granting the monarchy they deep felt support in Scotland today. While I would be very surprised to see those segments vote SNP, or indeed for independence, it would be very foolhardy to stir that pot, as we consider whether to annul the 1707 treaty,as far as those segments are concerned. An activist loyalism is something to be heavily triangulated. There should be no reason for the Queen to feel that we are threatening her interests. If the Queen is silent on the issue, then those Scots who see themselves as her loyal followers will be less likely to be restless. Anything which calls her role into question, however democratically legitimate, would soon become a matter of force and finance, because of that potential powder keg. I don’t like those odds.

    Whereas I don’t really think the Queen or her successors will be overly keen to get active in frontline politics, as long as her and hers are known and perceived to be secure in their role and interests, loyalist activism will be a fringe concern. That is very significant in those places where loyalism is based (Glasgow and the West, where polling shows support for independence to be among the highest in the country, and deepest there amongst the demographics where loyalism is also often a big political factor).

  8. You are a bit late. As I recall the current form of wording on the position on the monarchy was adopted for the publication of “Talking Independence” which was published I think back in 2001 or 2002. Certainly when John Swinney was leader.

  9. Burdz is correct and sound – and the matter of settling these questions well before the referendum campaign is very important, we cant get into divisive argument in the middle of it.
    This is only one policy that has to be settled – confirmed or changed by Conference.
    More important is a referendum on EU membership which has been dropped – by the Euronats perhaps who oppose any vote on the EU.
    There are others, like the policy for a single chamber Parliament which I believe will raise the false suggestion of a Scottish elected dictatorship.
    I think, and believe strongly, that every piece of policy which we have which might lead to No votes should be reviewed now, rather than in the year before the vote in 2015. Not that we should change anything (without a vote of the Party ) but that we should not allow the matter to arise during the all-important year long campaign.

  10. There’s a deal to be done here – you keep your crown and we’ll keep the foreshore!

  11. I agree with davidsberry that we must not frighten the horses. We have always been proud to say decisions of annual conference and national council are the key policy making democracy of the party so let us keep the decision on the monarchy until the agreed appropriate time.

  12. Alex has a bit of form for unilateral declarations but I wouldn’t worry about it as he can’t bind his successors either in Parliament or in the party.
    The matter is of no consequence at the moment anyway as we have to be independent before the question comes up.
    This is an area in which our enemies will try to divide us before we get there.

  13. how’s about a referendum on a referendum? … then’s about just dealing with one thing at a time:- 1707 political “union” – the primary of the two “knots” (vote on it and untangle it)… without the long overdue undoing of that mistake there’s no point in even talking about turfing out the monarchy because we’d remain under the thumb of a country that decides without us (with weight of numbers against us) if the monarchy stays or goes – in much the same manner they’ve decided throughout history what party of people we’re governed by from 400 miles away in london – like 2010 – by outvoting us 10-1.. if you put any value on the upkeep of your democracy every 4 years i wouldn’t imagine you’d be that keen on those odds.
    if you confuse the simplicity of undoing the treaty of 1707 by throwing the arms and legs of the 1603 union into the mix you risk diluting the support for political independence.. it’s that simple.. why would you want to risk doing that ‘less you wished to weaken the chances of political liberation from westminster?
    if we aren’t politically independent from westminster in a few years if we’re still under london rule.. what would you say the chances are of a successful movement springing from scotland to rid ourselves of a monarchy with it’s outdated patronage system and all the rest of their merry retinue? i don’t fancy the odds… but i more than fancy them in a politically independent scotland.
    in my own opinion these should be viewed as two separate issues deserving of two separate considerations.
    but then again that’s just my opinion.

  14. Agreed, Burd.

  15. Does this actually mean that the proposal to have a referndum on the monarchy has been ditched, or that the independence referendum will take place while the monarchy is in place – ie it includes the long-standing policy for the Queen and her successors to be head of state after independence, until such time as that position is ratified by the people of Scotland in a subsequent referendum?

    • Maybe the respondent from the party was trying to be clever in not answering the question that was asked ie by skirting around it by referencing the referendum on independence at which point the monarchy will still be the Head of State. As you suggest. Who knows?

      Whatever, there is a distinct sense of playing just a wee bit fast and loose with party policy.

  16. Having been at Rothesay in 1997, I recall our right royal rammy over this (a lucid and passionate debate we now have all too seldom), I am disappointed but not entirely surprised at the party’s response to Kenny’s question on where the SNP now officially stands:

    “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…that dates back to the founding of the SNP in 1934”. No mention of any subsequent choice on Head of State, as decided at Rothesay.

    “Don’t frighten the horses” is no bad political mantra. But at what point such pragmatism becomes autocracy and how long the “famously disciplined” SNP membership will thole their only vehicle to decide policy being unceremoniously ditched remains to be seen.

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