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The Union and the Crown: What does the Queen's death mean for Scotland?

Design: Vicky Axelson

The Union and the Crown: What does the Queen's death mean for Scotland?

Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor has inherited a United Kingdom straining at the seams. 

The new sovereign has come to the throne during a time of crisis amid looming recession, trade union unrest, and panic over the cost-of-living. Unsettled questions remain over the Northern Ireland protocol, with a fledgling administration in Westminster led by a PM who offers continuity despite the damage caused by her predecessor. And, in Edinburgh, a devolved government of rebellious Scots aims to unpick the Union his mother presided over as head of state for 70 years with a referendum to be held – Supreme Court willing – on 19 October 2023

The death of Queen Elizabeth was not a political event. Indeed, as images of her grieving family circulated and the political elite responded to the news of her death at Balmoral, most spoke as one, sharing messages of condolence, praising the Queen’s service, and noting her affection for Scotland. The Scottish Parliament, like all others in the UK, was suspended for 10 days of official mourning, with flags at half-mast.

MSPs returned the day after the Queen’s funeral, with Roz McCall of the Conservatives – replacing Dean Lockhart on the Mid Scotland and Fife list – becoming the first parliamentarian to swear allegiance to the King. “I hope to work to your example,” she said of the Queen as the chamber heard further tributes to the late monarch. The first minister and other party leaders had already paid theirs in the presence of the new King. Anas Sarwar recalled how his six-year-old had cried because he would never meet the Queen, while Nicola Sturgeon said the monarch had been “the anchor of our nation”.

Privately, some Scottish politicians were speculating on how fast that tether would now hold, and on whether Her Majesty, a pillar of Britishness who is said to have unified the peoples throughout decades and crises, had intended the very place of her death to have a harnessing affect that would keep the kingdom together. Speaking off the record, one senior Scottish Conservative suggested that the Queen, in failing health, had travelled to Balmoral in the knowledge that she would die there, and with the intention of bolstering support for the Union. Had she done the status quo a favour, the MSP wondered?

In public, commentators were less circumspect. “For the Queen to pass away peacefully in her beloved Balmoral was a fitting end,” Royal historian Richard Fitzwilliams told The Sun. “It is a comfort to all of us that she spent her final days in the place that brought her so much happiness. But more significantly, it was a fitting final act of unionism for a monarch who cherished the UK.” The Queen was “greatly distressed at the thought of the Union dividing, at the thought of Scotland leaving the Union,” Nicholas Witchell said in a live BBC broadcast, reminding viewers of the comment she made a few days before the 2014 referendum when she told a member of the public outside Crathie Kirk that, “I hope the people will think very carefully about the future”.

That was an intervention credited by some with swaying public opinion. In a 2019 interview, David Cameron said he had asked for the sovereign’s intervention while PM. He had sought nothing “improper or unconstitutional”, he said, but the “raising of the eyebrow even... a quarter of an inch”, and the Queen “purred down the line” when told the result of the ballot. But there is scepticism about the strength of the Queen’s impact on public political opinion, and, even after 10 days of large crowds at funeral events, uncertainty about the potential for shifts on Scottish sovereignty.

Pollster Mark Diffley, of the Diffley Partnership, says part of the problem is a lack of quality work done on the matter – and anything that is published now may be skewed. A Deltapoll survey for The Sun carried out in the days after the Queen’s death found a four per cent slip in support for Scottish independence to 42 per cent. The figure changes to 47 per cent when undecideds are removed, producing a result closely aligned with the 49 per cent ‘yes’ support recorded by a separate poll in August. However, fewer than 660 people were polled and political scientist Sir John Curtice (whose own British Social Attitudes Survey, released days later, put indy support at 52 per cent) told The National he is not paying the research “much attention”. It will take repeated polling over “a few months” to establish where Scottish voters truly stand, Diffley told Holyrood.

“We need to separate out the issues which can get conflated – whether to continue with a monarch as the head of state and whether Scotland should be part of the UK,” he says. “If we look at what motivated people to vote either yes or no in 2014, the existence of the monarchy wasn’t really a factor of either campaign. It was almost entirely nullified by the fact that the pro-independence side did a good job of not putting it on the agenda.” ‘Yes’ voters are “less likely to support the monarchy”, he says, but “not in an overwhelming sense”.

Whilst the pro-independence Scottish Greens support a republic – co-leader Patrick Harvie has defended himself from criticism after he told King Charles that “human life is not rooted in status, or in title” during the motion of condolence – the SNP’s policy is to retain the monarchy after dissolving the Union. It’s a policy that hasn’t been debated for longer than the party has been in government and, some claim, one that might not last long. One senior SNP figure told Holyrood that the policy is out of step with much of the membership, jars against opposition to the unelected House of Lords, and should be debated “after all this calms down”. However, the monarchy is “not up there on the big issues”, it is claimed. The cost-of-living crisis is the issue that will win or lose the referendum, the source said, not the question of who is head of state.

“We are going through a period of high emotion, but that will ease. It’s wishful in my view to claim that this will have the effect of strengthening the Union because there’s no evidence of that.”

But former cabinet secretary Roseanna Cunningham – dubbed Republican Rose over her anti-monarchy stance – says the policy was adopted for “pragmatic” reasons and has “divorced the monarchy from independence”. “You could argue that has been a vindication of the SNP’s position,” she says of the lack of debate on the matter in 2014. “My position on the monarchy is not related to the Union. I would argue against it within the UK, it’s not in lockstep. It’s a little bit more complicated than that.” 

“I don’t believe,” she says of the suggestion that succession could bolster the Union, “that people are making that connection. Nothing around me in these last 10 days has led me to believe that is in any way how people feel. It is quite wrong to make that automatic conclusion.

“The Queen was exempted from a lot of criticism,” Cunningham continues. “I don’t think Charles is going to get that exemption. People have started to look at him and say, ‘hold on’.” 
“What I’m curious about,” she goes on, “is how little there has been to develop what this monarchy in an independent Scotland would look like. We’ve said no governor general, which rules out the Australian model, but beyond that there isn’t much to go on, which somewhat gives the game away. I don’t think we have really thought through what a separate Scottish monarchy would look like and how we would want to see it, if that’s what we wanted to see.” 

Almost 30 per cent of Scots, The Sun’s poll found, believe the Queen’s death has strengthened the Union, while 20 per cent say the opposite. “The entire country has been together in our respect and grief for the late Queen,” Tory MP Andrew Bowie told the paper, which reported that 55 per cent of the people it polled were not in favour of indyref2.

At Scottish Labour, key figures believe it’s “too early to tell” what the impact on the independence debate will be. “We’ve been in a period of emotional mourning,” said a source. “I don’t really buy that the Queen made a difference in the last referendum. People who were going to have their vote swayed by the Queen were already voting ‘no’.” 

There isn’t a universal level of monarchism, across the party or Scottish politics in general, the source said, “but everybody acknowledges the role of the Queen as a constitutional, public figurehead and that’s been a unifying part in this”.

In the Highlands, where King Charles has been active on visits to the Castle of Mey, Lib Dem councillor Molly Nolan says she doesn’t get the sense that political opinions are changing because of the succession. “I know that has been talked about,” she says, “but it’s been quite profound to see how people have been affected by the death of the Queen, regardless of where they stand on the constitution. She stood above that for a lot of people. Irrespective of any political views, that constant figure in our lives has gone. People had valued that and hadn’t realised it.”

It is, Nolan argues, a moment for “soul searching” about the Scotland we want to live in and the way we do politics. “There is a sense of politics being back to normal now,” she says. “If that’s the case, it’s a real missed opportunity. During the period of mourning, people have not missed the adversarial, sometimes bitter nature of Holyrood politics.”

However, there have been bitter moments over those ten days: the arrests of protesters in Edinburgh and Oxford, the jeering of one minute’s silences and applauses at the start of football matches. There’s been criticism too of the way the media has covered the event. It has been a “shameful period for British journalism in which scrutiny, challenge, perspective, balance and common sense have been ditched in favour of fawning banalities,” according to veteran broadcaster Michael Crick, while St Andrews University psychology professor Stephen Reicher has criticised the “narrative of universal respect” presented by reporters. Writing in The Guardian, he said this had “interpreted and exploited” feelings of sadness in a way that equates them with “joy at the unquestioned accession of Charles” and had a “chilling effect” on dissent. The small number of arrests raised concerns among some Scottish parliamentarians about the right to free speech and peaceful protest. “Royals have always been booed and cheered,” says Dr Alan MacDonald of the University of Dundee. “That’s nothing new.”

Crowds in Edinburgh were 10 deep at times, with people travelling from around Scotland, Northern Ireland, the north of England and further afield to be there. Two in five people polled for The Sun think Charles will be a “good king for Scotland”, while 15 per cent think he will be a “bad monarch”. MacDonald says the way Charles “projects his kingship” and the monarchy’s Scottish-ness will matter, as will his ability to connect. “People talk about the personability of politicians, how well they connect with people. While I don’t think Charles III will be king of the selfies, there’s a dynamic there to be observed,” he tells Holyrood. “How that develops will be part of how the monarchy and its future route across the UK develops.

“For people to say ‘this is the end of the monarchy’ or ‘this is the end of the Union’ is a bit distasteful. We are in the midst of a transformational moment and what that leads to remains to be seen. The fact that there was an outpouring of affection for the Queen doesn’t mean there was an outpouring of support for the Union. I’m not saying it would have a Unionist bent, but it would be rash to suppose that a snapshot of public opinion in the period between the death and funeral of someone is an indicator of a long-term change.

“Changes like that don’t happen overnight. If you’re expecting to wake up and find a world transformed, that’s rather absurd.”

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