13 March 2010

Restoring the Regal Union (Redux)

“Restoring the Regal Union of 1603” is the Maximum Eck’s line on post-independence Scottish monarchy.

As I've pointed out here, history isn’t just to be found in careful academic journals and the learned books which prop up professorial chairs. Judicious, verifiable history perhaps. But ‘history’ is also the series of beliefs about the past which can command material force in society here and now. This history is subject to none of the methodological caution of professional researchers. While it is perhaps more simple, it is also more raw, more brutal, more interesting. These ideas can influence public policy, delimiting the vocabulary and conceptual references we make when resolving disputed issues. It is history with social imperatives and social consequences.

The Ongoing Social History of Scotland
In his impressionistic way, Alex Salmond understands this very well. Take the qualifications made when the SNP members take their statutory oaths and affirmations to “bear true allegiance to her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors according to law”. This bizarre little feudal ceremonial, strangely, has become a locus for diverse political symbolism over the years. For example, while affirming members are not invited to raise the right hands, you’ll recall Tommy Sheridan did so, clenching his sunblushed fin like the good protesting submitter that he was. Eck & Chums draw a neat line to the Declaration of Arbroath – deftly rearrange and adjust some of the concepts involved – and insist that:

“The Scottish National Party's primary loyalty is with the people of Scotland, in line with the Scottish constitutional tradition of the sovereignty of the people.” (Scottish Parliament Official Report 9 May 2007, Col 1)

Not limited to Holyrood Ceremony, Salmond symmetrically turned folk historian on the graduate endowment, managing to interpret a rather bureaucratic, cost-apportioning issue into one of “Scotland’s story”, where “we invented free education”. One could turn lawyer and point out that the constitutional story Salmond is telling is imaginary. Or highlight the divergences between contemporary definitions of education, and those which animated the historically devout to encourage literacy so one could absorb one’s Leviticus, Ezekiel and Maccabees. To do so, however, would be to grossly miss the point. What are jousting here are ideas and stories about the nature of a Scots reality. Academically historical facts are only of peripheral relevance. Note, this sort of thing isn’t limited to Nationalists. We can thank David Steel for the rash of parliamentary references to Elizabeth Windsor as the “Queen of Scots”. Steel first applied this “constitutionally correct” appellation to the Queen in 1999, and through the agency of the subsequent Presiding Officers and Alex Salmond, this has stuck.

Back to the Regal Union..
But back to the Regal Union of 1603. Personally, and up to a point, I think Salmond’s quiet tactic of historical resonances – as opposed to precise, Mozartian melodies – is a canny one. By its nature, it couches the new in terms of the historical, and the untried in terms of the historically recurrent. Rhetorically at least, this imparts stability. Threats that significant change will be assailed as a self-regarding rationalist innovation, out of tradition and bereft of empirical content are dodged.

I am no fan of monarchy or honorific styles. I hate it in courts. It breeds judicial niggliness, smallness of spirit, inappropriate deference and craven manners. The tired old failed politicals who hang around outside the House of Lords, waiting to be bonked by whatever ennobling device they employ, are unsightly, their puppy-dog eyes for “magic names” transcribing its own judgemental narrative about these men and women’s basic values.

Broadly, I would echo the splendid and shamefully neglected Thomas Paine’s remark concerning the abolition of aristocracy in the Rights of Man. “The French Constitution” he wrote, “says, There shall be no titles; and, of consequence, all that class of equivocal generation which in some countries is called “aristocracy” and in others “nobility,” is done away, and the peer is exalted into the Man.He continues,

Titles are but nick-names, and every nickname is a title. The thing is perfectly harmless in itself, but it marks a sort of foppery in the human character, which degrades it. It reduces man into the diminutive of man in things which are great, and the counterfeit of women in things which are little. It talks about its fine blue ribbon like a girl, and shows its new garter like a child. A certain writer, of some antiquity, says: “When I was a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

So, what of Scotland, if/when it grows up? Although Salmond favours keeping the monarchy, either as a tactical wheeze during an independence campaign or through some principle, the party’s Draft Constitution for Scotland (2002) provides that:

"the SNP is committed to holding a referendum in the term of office of the first independent Parliament of Scotland on whether to retain the monarchy.”

You might well contrast this - or at least wonder if and how how it might be compatible - with the claim espoused in the Draft Referendum (Scotland) Bill Consultation paper:

1.19. Her Majesty The Queen would remain as Head of State. The current parliamentary and political Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would become a monarchical and social Union - united kingdoms rather than a United Kingdom - maintaining a relationship forged in 1603 by the Union of the Crowns.

Since we’re in a historical frame of mind, however, we should remember that even if Scotland voted to keep Kings and Queens – or monarchical preferences won the political day without a plebiscite - there remains the matter of the succession. Even after the Union of the Crowns in 1603, Scotland wasn’t bound over to crown the same regal character selected by the English and Welsh authorities. This would surely be the logical consequence of “restoring the regal union of 1603”. On the death of any seated monarch, there would be room for a mean spirited wrangle – and more importantly – space to reject the ludicrous patriarchal race of primogeniture. Not, certainly, that I’d suggest anyone would be rushing headlong to recruit the notoriously talented Windsor cadets to the cause. Or import some obscure Bavarian princeling (no doubt a few Jacobites might try to scrounge up a plausibly fey looking Stuart we could all turn to.) Like the Regal Union of 1603, the point is that it is only short term continuity that is promised by a 'return' to that Union.

In point of fact, this might be splendid fun. Personally, the idea of an elected monarch always struck me as wonderfully vulgar. After all, why be dreary and copy the Americans, choosing some sort of politicised President, or be equally boring by borrowing the Irish model of worthy but plodding? Have a King or Queen of Scots, arranged along toothless, constitutional-monarch lines, but chosen from among the folk by popular election. It isn’t that absurd. When the Americans were drafting their constitution, the idea of a President as elected-king was regarded by some as gauche, slightly embarrassing. How appropriate for Scotland to invert the order, and return the compliment of history. On my reading of the Declaration of Arbroath, it’d be splendidly historical, just the right mixture of ludicrous and elevating. Somehow, I fear this will be just one among many causes where my view will not march to triumph…

Draft Constitution for a Free Scotland text restored, to boot...

On a final note, a few of you mentioned the SNP's Draft Constitution for Scotland in a recent post on Jefferson and his relevance when determining an independent Scotland's constitutional options. For myself, I'm not convinced of the virtues of a constitution which is difficult to reform - nor of the general benefits of encouraging American-inspired judicial-review tactics. In any case, I've revisited the tedious task of reformatting Neil MacCormick's proposed Constitution, back into an accessible form. For those of you who are interested, the Constitution for a Free Scotland can be perused here, in only seven articles!

(This is a slightly rejigged version of an article, first published in July 2009)

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