I read yesterday of a rumour that the Queen is due to step down at Christmas. This seems to be doing the rounds (in the wake of her royal household’s faux pas in referring to Nicola Sturgeon as the First Minister of the long defunct Scottish Executive) at the same time as the revelation that – far from being impartial during the Referendum, as she had often stated she would be, according to the rules of her position – she was given a specific script in order to act on David Cameron’s request to make an intervention, which she duly recited for the benefit of journalists. Alan Cochrane relates the story in his recent egocentric memoir of apparently being the secret leader of the ‘No’ campaign as Scottish editor of the Daily Telegraph. While many parts of this work are risible (the remarks attributed to Mark Carney have already been completely and forcefully refuted by his office), his description of the journalists unusually being encouraged to approach the Queen after her Sunday church visit (instead of being kept back, so that she could speak in private, as normal, with other parishioners), and told to listen to anything that she might say, has been independently confirmed. Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary supposedly worked on the wording of her statement (he is also reputed to have worked with Gordon Brown in the wording of ‘The Vow’) that Scots ‘should think very very carefully’. [In this light, it seems deeply ironic that Cameron was criticised for being overheard reporting the Queen’s alleged ‘purring’ response to the Referendum result, after he had specifically engineered her being deliberately overheard reciting his commissioned script. However…] And it should be remembered that the monarchy is far from aloof in terms of getting involved in politics, no matter what the press might tell you: the Queen and Prince Charles have used the royal veto over parliament 39 times – e.g. to curtail Tam Dalyell’s private member’s bill, as it was attempting to transfer authorisation of military strikes from the monarchy to parliament. Again, this was fairly important issue – yet royalty was happy to get involved and nip the democratic process in the bud.
This leads on to a question of just how much the Queen might have had an impact on the Referendum result – regardless of Cameron’s clear belief that it would, as shown by his use of her in an effort to pull out all the stops and recover the lost ground in that last week. It has been detectable for some time that politically Scots have a very distinct approach to a large number of matters, compared to the rest of the UK, and the monarchy is no exception. Although Alex Salmond’s strategy for presenting an independence package that sounded remarkably like DevoMax included keeping the Queen, it is certainly the case that amongst the SNP and ‘Yes’ in general are a large number of republicans – and that is also a reflection of broader Scottish society.
I can remember a chaotic bunfest of a live TV programme back in January 1997 – ‘Monarchy: The Nation Decides’ – in which a live show with an audience of 3,000 herded into the Birmingham NEC attempted to ‘debate’ whether or not to retain the monarchy. Because it was live, they had 14,000 telephone lines for people to vote, as the cat-calling and heckling got louder and louder, as though the audience had all been locked in the Green Room for an hour before showtime. I remember arch-royalist Freddie Forsyth getting particularly irritated and looking angry for much of the time…and then the results of the vote were announced. The Mail and Express the next day ran with shocked stories that 34% of those who voted did not want to retain the monarchy – but the regional variations were perhaps the most interesting, if also ignored by those particular publications.
Of course, telephone voting is not exactly scientific as a method of ‘polling’, people complained about not getting through, others were on automatic redial….but given that that would be the case across the UK, the variations might still be considered to be instructive. Whereas Northern Ireland and Wales were more or less split (Wales marginally voting in favour of retention) and England was predictably supportive, Scotland was the only area that voted clearly (56%) against retaining the monarchy. This was in 1997 – before Blair’s election, the consequent establishment of the long-awaited Scottish Parliament, and the beginning of a sense of ‘reaccumulating’ self-identity in Scotland as a state.
Fast forward to last year in August, and 63% of Scots wanted a ballot on whether or not to retain the monarchy in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, with only 22% saying that the royals should be retained without question. As Margo MacDonald noted at the time, no talks on a new constitution (post-‘Yes’) could possibly take place without a decision on who the head of state would be.
True, there are other pragmatic considerations for disposing of the monarchy. As Carolyn Leckie notes, it fundamentally legitimises inequality in society. Is it the best use of public money? The Royal Family costs £333 million a year (£33 million for the thousand staff), which is said to be good for tourism…but probably not that much outwith London itself. MacDonald again noted the outcry in England in the wake of Diana’s death, when the Queen retreated to Balmoral with the two boys who had just lost their mother – as though she had gone off to the Bahamas, it was not as though it was a ‘real’ part of her realm…like London, perhaps.
I suspect that Scotland’s perception (perhaps shared by England) of being ‘adrift’ from the UK is more of a reflection of a growing alienation from the monarchy – and, indeed, the identity of ‘Britain’ – in the post-war years. It is fair to say that, the Queen’s accession to the throne was the kickstart to the long modern campaign for Scottish independence: in February 1952 on the death of her father she took the title Elizabeth the Second of the United Kingdom – in spite of the fact that she was the first one of Scotland, thus could be seen to be diminishing her Scottish role as subsidiary to her English one (this lead to the prolonged campaign of vandalism – even involving explosives – against the pillar boxes bearing ‘EIIR’, until after 1953 new post boxes in Scotland carried only the Crown of Scotland image, the EIIR one being retained elsewhere in the UK and its territories); in June 1953 there was determinedly no official crowning with the Scottish honours – which she held, wearing an ordinary hat and coat on the advice of her ministers, momentarily before they were returned to their case (three weeks earlier had been the glitz and showbiz event in London’s Westminster Abbey), and, again, the message of subsidiarity was clear.
Prior to her accession to the throne, the Scottish Covenant (a petition for a Home Rule Scottish parliament) had been launched in October 1949, gathering over 2 million signatures (the population in Scotland according to the 1951 census was 5.1 million) before being summarily dismissed by the Labour government in May 1950. Perhaps it was this high-handedness that led to the band of Glasgow University students descending on Westminster Abbey during Christmas 1950 for as audacious a piece of repatriation of cultural heritage as one could imagine. Although Elizabeth’s royal positioning could be seen as responses to both of those actions, they were probably overreactions: many seemed to have thought of the student heist as little more than a ‘jolly good wheeze’ at the time, and would not normally have linked the monarchy to the question of a request for devolved government. However, the rebranding and repackaging of the monarchy at this time and in this way (and with television expanding into the home, this was the first mass media coronation) provoked a slightly more stunned reaction: a Glasgow University student prank was one thing – but this was the establishment, under guidance from the government, sending a provocative message…and it was not about the ‘Union of equals’ that Scots had been raised to understand and believe in.
In that sense – inasmuch as ‘her madge’ seems to have been carefully controlled and steered in what happened with her accession to the throne, so she seems to have been just another stooge this time (much like Gordon Brown…or any of the other Scottish Labour MPs that you care to mention) – with what may have been one of her last interventions in office…if ‘that rumour’ is true.
“The Queen is just a piece of historical baggage that Scotland needs to be rid off – although I doubt that she would like to be referred to as a piece of baggage…” (Edinburgh University Students’ Association President JJ Liston, The Scotsman, ‘Move Over Ma’am’, September 3rd 1991)