Today’s Daily Mail reports that last year, Downing Street considered asking Prince Edward and Sophie, the Earl and Countess of Wessex, to take up residence at Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, and increase the number of engagements in Scotland. It’s expected that Prince Edward will inherit the title Duke of Edinburgh from Prince Philip. In the context of a likely second independence referendum, such a move is simply a non-starter. Moreover, it reflects a very simplistic view of Scotland.
A more sophisticated approach would try to understand more fundamentally what has happened. The New Labour government proposed devolution as a way to keep the Union together. Instead, it’s created the pathway to independence, so that if just a little bit more power were granted to Scotland, this would sate the appetite for more. Both Whitehall and Westminster felt that this resolved the problem for the foreseeable future, leading to the approach of “devolve and forget”. For the Unionists, this did not matter as ultimate authority still rested with Westminster. This created the vacuum that the SNP has since gone on to fill with gusto.
All this shows how those behind devolution in the late 1990s failed to appreciate its full implications. The creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly (now Parliament) was much more than creating two glorified town councils. It started transforming a unitary state into a union state of four nations, each with their own legislatures. Beyond English Votes for English Laws, the lack of any coherent plan for England shows how incomplete this process still is. As a side note, this has had tremendous consequences, in 2016, “Take Back Control” resonated most with those who identified as English first and British second, but that’s an issue for another day.
Had this been appreciated and taken seriously at Westminster and in Whitehall, then at some point before the first independence referendum in 2014, the role of UK-wide institutions could and should have been addressed. It would have required confronting the view that “Britain” is merely another name for “England”. Is it tenable for an institution called the “Bank of England” to set interest rates for the whole United Kingdom? It took until 2017 before the UK Supreme Court sat in Edinburgh. Yet, it’s sister institution, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council sat in Mauritius and the Bahamas a few years beforehand. There are many more examples of these types of anomalies.
So yes, the issue of the monarchy’s role in Scotland could and should have been considered as part of all of this. Post-devolution, it’s a genuine question as to whether Holyrood Week, with the Queen conducting engagements out of Holyrood Palace in early July, with other ad hoc engagements from the rest of the Royal Family was sufficient. Within the broader context of the Union reconsidering its relationship with the nations, potentially a member of the Royal Family could have taken up a Governor-General type role, similar to those who represent the Queen in those countries where she remains Head of State, such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand. Wales could be treated in a similar way – for one dynamic of devolution is that where Scotland leads, Wales soon follows. Of course, special considerations apply to Northern Ireland, but fundamentally, the monarchy would be reflecting how the UK was now being governed. It’s an example of how devolution within a unionist framework could have developed; only it hasn’t been seriously pursued by anyone at Westminster.
But now? The independence genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and only a political battle can put it back (if at all). Prince Edward taking up residence at Holyrood Palace is simply not going to cut it. In this context, it’s not even clear what is in it for the monarchy as an institution. In recent decades, a critical feature of the monarchy has been to avoid any involvement in matters of party-political controversy. Asking the monarchy to become involved in one of the most contested issues in British politics fundamentally undermines this. Currently, the SNP’s policy is that an independent Scotland would retain the Monarch as Head of State. If the UK Government uses the monarchy as a campaign tool, the SNP may well change their minds.
If the monarchy’s role is to reflect the underlying political temperature, involving the monarchy in a second independence referendum in is only likely to backfire. It could lead to an independent Scotland, with no role for the monarchy, reflecting a nation that politically has become more distant from the rest of the UK than either Canada or Australia.