The case for the Monarchy and the case for Scottish independence are in a similarly strange position: not dying but not thriving either.
This weekend, normal service briefly came to a stop. Depending on your point of view, the Coronation of King Charles III was either a historic moment of national unity, an absurd example of post-imperialist pomp, or a faraway incident of complete irrelevance to your life.
With the focus of attention on the King, the questions over the Monarchy’s future have returned to the fore. And it got me wondering about parallels between its future and the current state of the independence movement here in Scotland.
Bear with me here.
Firstly there’s the recent change of personnel. Both the British Monarchy and the cause of Scottish independence have recently lost a dominant leader: the Queen in one case, the former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the other.
(Some might add that there were similarities in style between the two as well: the Regal hauter, the obedient group of courtiers, the hierarchical rule – but that’s deeply unfair on the Queen surely…)
However, the similarities go deeper that merely a change at the top.
In the wake of the Queen’s death and Ms Sturgeon’s flit, both the Monarchy and the Scottish independence cause have had to confront some fundamental questions which, perhaps, the presence of an all-powerful boss had papered over. Yet at the same time, while both feel less secure than before, neither is entirely collapsing either.
On the monarchy, one major study this week found that only three in 10 Britons think it is “very important”, the lowest figure on record. Meanwhile, on Scottish independence, a poll by Redfield and Wilton Strategies also showed another fall in backing, with support for leaving the UK now down at 42%.
But while that’s the gloomy picture for nationalists and monarchists, both groups can take comfort from the fact that the alternatives aren’t cutting through either.
Republicanism remains a minority pursuit in Britain – only a few of us can really get that bothered to actively support an elected Head of State (even in sceptical Scotland, only 32% back one, according to Lord Ashcroft’s poll earlier this week).
What change do we want?
Meanwhile, in Scotland, while the case for the union is clearly more popular than independence, support is far from overwhelming. Ask people (as Our Scottish Future has) whether they’re happy with the status quo, then you don’t get a very positive response. People may not want independence, but they’re not all that keen on things as they are either.
In short, when it comes to the question of the UK’s continued existence and the future of the Monarchy, it seems we’ve reached something of an uneasy truce: neither supportive of the radical alternatives being offered to the status quo (independence and a Republic), nor entirely satisfied by what’s in front of us either (the Union and a Monarchy).
In the case of the monarchy, I think the new King can rest relatively easy. Given high levels of public apathy on the matter, the most likely scenario is that the status quo will continue, with the Royals tweaking their modus operandi in the hope that will placate those opposed to it. The relative popularity of Prince William and Princess Kate will also help the Monarchy in the medium term. But as I say, the monarchy’s greatest ally is the fact that most of us have bigger things to think about than the question of who is our head of state.
Is this the case with the Union? On the one hand, it’s certainly true to say that the case for the Union is helped by the same “please don’t bother me” factor. This week’s polling reveals a further drop in support for another referendum any time soon; even strong nationalist supporters don’t want to go there. It increasingly feels that the option of quitting the UK is becoming more and more like an emergency rip-cord: an option many Scots like would like to hold in reserve but are unlikely to touch unless the UK train careers wildly out of control again. In case of emergency Scotland wants to know it can break the glass, but it really doesn’t want to have to.
On the other hand, the question of the Scotland’s place in the UK is clearly more salient to most of us than the largely peripheral issue of what happens to the Monarchy, and it therefore feels somehow unsatisfactory to park the constitutional question, shrug our shoulders, and accept an unhappy truce as the only option going forward. It may be a form of success for the pro-Union side to hold between 51% and 55% of support, but it is hardly a stable one.
To quickly set out our solution: Our Scottish Future’s view is we must listen and meet the desire for change as expressed by both pro and anti-independence supporters in Scotland. In practice, this means fundamentally reforming the Westminster system, pursuing deep decentralisation across the whole of the UK, and improving devolution so we see far deeper joint working across all layers of government in key areas like healthcare, economic development and climate change. (We produced a paper on NHS cooperation this week which sets out how, in existing and new specialist services, we need more UK wide joint working so everybody can get access). Fundamentally, the UK is far too centralised politically, and far too unequal economically. This is how to win a convincing majority for the Union in Scotland – by making it work better.
The King’s reign is assured, I’d guess. Most of us can’t be bothered to boot him out. But the more serious issue of the UK’s future shouldn’t rest on the power of the status quo and a general sense of constitutional exhaustion. It requires attention and serious reform. If not, none of us should be surprised if the cause for Scottish independence continues to win significant support.
Featured image of coronation of George IV via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
(Our Scottish Future’s next event, Making Britain work for Scotland, is on June 1 in Edinburgh (see here).)