The SNP and the Crown continue to dance around, hoping the other will not prove a problem
The death of anyone is always a personal and family matter. But it is also a constitutional and political matter when the monarch dies.
Protocol is followed – well rehearsed, updated and changed over the years. The creation of the Scottish Parliament has been incorporated into plans though far more challenging has been incorporating the changing nature of the Commonwealth.
As well as the fifteen Prime Ministers during her reign, the late monarch headed the Commonwealth and met more than ten times that number of heads of government including many as head of state as well. There is an important international dimension that will have been taken into account. The monarch’s death involves the projection of how the state sees itself to the world.
Only the timing could not be been built into Operation London Bridge, the code name used for the preparations. Considerable thought will have gone into arrangements to transport the late monarch’s body from Balmoral to London and the formalities of the funeral.
These are likely to be carried off without a hitch with full pomp and ceremony. But parallel political and constitutional preparations will have been discussed.
Walter Bagehot, the Victorian constitutionalist, distinguished between the “dignified” (or symbolic) and “efficient” (or working) parts of the constitution and stressed that each was important.
The monarchy today might largely be a dignified part of the constitution but symbols, rituals and myths – as the coming days will demonstrate clearly – should not be dismissed. These are the glue that keep the constitution and political system intact.
Despite all the claims to permanence, the pretence of ancient roots and myths of continuity, they change as required. There are plenty of broken links in the chain that supposedly reaches back a millennium or more.
The passing of a monarch is a potentially difficult moment for the body politic – both the institution of monarchy but also the wider political system. This is especially so after the death of a person held in high regard and affection by a large majority of people. This will have long been exercising the minds of courtiers and politicians.
The implications of the transition to the new monarch have long been speculated – and when considering what happens when the Queen dies few were asking about the dignified formalities.
Fewer could have anticipated the backdrop of political and economic turbulence. Monarchy, like all conservative institutions, thrives on stability and certainty.
And then there is the political sensibility and judgment of the new monarch. The “black spider” letters which came to light only after dogged pursuit by The Guardian, revealed Charles taking advantage of his status to gain access to Ministers to pursue his personal political objectives. His mother was the soul of discretion and diplomacy in comparison, though even she occasionally strayed.
And it is where she strayed that the new monarch will be watched most carefully in Scotland.
It would not surprise anyone that the monarch opposes Scottish independence. The monarchy may have remained consistent in opposition but not in how it has responded.
Back in 1977, the late Queen noted the debates on devolution and commented, “I number Kings and Queens of England and of Scotland, and Princes of Wales among my ancestors and so I can readily understand these aspirations. But I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps this Jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred, at home and in our international dealings, on the inhabitants of all parts of this United Kingdom”.
Consternation in the SNP, then experiencing peak support and avowedly monarchist, was visible when it met in conference a few weeks later.
In 2014, four days before the independence referendum, the Queen was more circumspect. On leaving Crathie Kirk when asked her view, she replied, “I hope people will think very carefully about the future”.
This was taken to mean much the same as her view from 37 years before, just expressed with more warily. David Cameron let slip that she had “purred down the line” when he had phoned to tell her the result of the referendum.
The potential problems in the choice of name of the new monarch will have been anticipated. The monarchy will remember the EIIR controversy back in 1953, at a time with Scottish nationalism was on the outer fringe of politics.
The idea then mooted as a solution was to adopt whichever numeral was highest from either English or Scottish lines.
Prime Minister Churchill was sympathetic, noting “if, for instance, a King Robert or a King James came to the throne he might well be designated by the numeral appropriate to the Scottish succession, thereby emphasising that our Royal Family traces its descent through the English Royal line from William the Conqueror and beyond, and through the Scottish Royal line from Robert the Bruce and Malcolm Canmore and still further back”.
The SNP leadership and the Crown have danced around each other, each hoping the other will not prove a problem. Nicola Sturgeon will not want to pick a fight, indeed keen to show her loyalty to the Crown.
A majority of SNP members are republicans, though the depth of this republicanism is doubtful but there is a core of committed republicans. The SNP’s republican wing will remain quiet for the moment.
Much will depend on what comes next. Charles has inherited the Crown but not the public affection felt for his mother nor her political sensibility.
The rituals and symbols will be important too as we have seen in the past. It is easy to dismiss these but they are politically and constitutionally important for nationalists and monarchy alike.