JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 26.4.13.
APRIL 2013; and Scotland’s apparently endless three-year referendum debate lurches into a new phase, full of ill-tempered contradictions. One one hand, the Better Together Campaign becomes more vehement by the day, in its dire warnings about the perils of independence; bereft of any progressive political programme for the continuing UK, it seems to have no option but to accentuate the negative, and to hope that it works.
Yet on the other hand, an ever-growing list of august institutions are beginning to address themselves seriously to the practical questions that might arise, if Scotland were to vote “yes” in 2014; and among them is the Church of Scotland, once at the centre of the campaign for a devolved Scottish Parliament, but now firmly agnostic on independence. This week, in advance of next month’s General Assembly, the Kirk issued a report from three of its committees on the implications of independence; the report argues not only that the traditional right of the church to run its own affairs should continue to be guaranteed, but also that the Scottish Government should publish its draft constitution for an independent Scotland before the referendum, so that people may have an idea of what they are voting on.
The most eye-catching recommendation, though, is the one in which the Kirk declares its continuing support for the monarchy, and suggests that in an independent Scotland, any new monarch ascending the throne should be treated to a separate Scottish coronation; cue positive comments from Scottish journalism’s inimitable arisrtocracy correspondent, Roddy Martine, and howls of rage from the nationalist left, for whom the idea of a Scottish coronation is some kind of reactionary Spitting Image nightmare come true.
It’s a debate, in other words, that reminds us of the deep symbolic waters into which Alex Salmond and his party are now navigating, as Scottish independence gradually shifts, in the eyes of the powers that be, from mere pipe-dream to serious policy proposal. It’s no secret that the SNP is a broad church of a political party, ranging from Tartan Tories on the right, to a socialist left which has long associated Scottish independence with the struggle against social injustice and imperialism; and that SNP left is genuinely distressed by the idea of Scotland winning its independence, only to remain shackled to this ancient symbol of a British state which they see as intrinsically militaristic and oppressive.
Now of course, there are many other ways of considering the British state, and – for that matter – the role of a constitutional monarchy. In its postwar phase, the British state certainly represented something much more, and better, than the imperial superpower of old; even in the 1990’s, there seemed to be opportunities for constitutional reform that went far beyond devolution. And in that context, there seemed little rational case for rebelling against the monarchy; indeed, with many of the most successful social democracies in Europe headed by hereditary heads of state, a well-regulated monarchy sometimes seemed like a bettetr constitutional option than most forms of elected Presidency.
Yet now, in these darker times, the scene looks different, and much more divisive. The Queen is 87 years old, and it would be a lucky chance indeed if her successors were able to fill her role with the same absolute dedication, and general sureness of touch. The British state is currently being pushed, by the coalition government, in a direction so reactionary that all its institutions become tainted by association with it; if the UK ever was on the road to becoming one of those respectable social-democratic monarchies, it certainly is not on it now. And in that context, there is something about the Kirk’s coronation suggestion that seems almost provocative; as if someone in the bosom of the Church were trying to push the idea of retaining the monarchy to a conclusion so absurd that the SNP might finally decide to change tack, and to embrace the great tradition of radical republicanism.
In the world of practical politics, of course, there is little chance of that. Ever since it became clear, in the 1990’s, that Scotland was likely to have its new Parliament, Buckingham Palace has been playing a careful, well-judged hand, in trying to ensure that the Queen remains titutar head of whatever institutions Scotland chooses; and the SNP has responded in kind.
This week’s flurry of debate around the Church of Scotland report, though, comes as vivid reminder that this historic compromise is a fragile one, and that it cannot be pushed too far. Back in 1953, following her coronation, the Queen came to St. Giles Cathedral to receive “the honours of Scotland”, as the Scots crown jewels are known; the painting of the occasion by Sir Stanley Cursiter portrays with relentless accuracy one of the few serious errors of protocol of the Queen’s entire reign, as she stands amid the great and good of Scotland, all gowned in their ceremonial robes, wearing a pale blue New Look day-dress and a little feathered hat.
At Buckingham Palace, that day wil not have been forgotten; following any future coronation at Westminster, they will be hoping – at best – for a repetition of that ceremony of 60 years ago, unmarred by any such lapse of taste. And here in Scotland, among the many decisions we face, we have to square up to a few truths. In the first place, that come what may, Scotland will need a head of state. Secondly, that every head of state, even the most republican, comes surrounded with a certain amount of ceremony – that is, of serious state theatre – designed to represent the country’s institutions to its people.
And finally, that if we cannot bear with the current royal family any longer, then we will have a major job of reinvention and reimagining to do, alongside all the other massive adjustments independence might bring. For we would have to decide not only on the kind of nation we want in social and economic terms, but also on a way of replacing the historic symbols of kingship and sovereignty that have marked out the history of this island; and without which we would find ourselves – psychologically, emotionally, and even politically – in a completely new world.