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.