The British Monarchy is so ingrained in the mythology of the United Kingdom, that it is often difficult for many to envision what alternatives exist as head of state for an independent Scotland. It is of course, a taboo subject, being as the Monarchy is synonymous with the UK, and is held to be a key source of legitimacy of the British state. Public debate about the role of the Monarchy in an independent Scotland is limited in the broader press, because of the passions it engenders and the institutional wrath such discussion can incur. However, as the debate continues on the constitutional implications of a referendum in Scotland, the future role of the Monarchy is not something which can be locked in a rhetorical safe. Debate should begin as to whether the Monarchy should be maintained as the head of state in an Independent Scotland, or what alternatives are possible.
The case for maintaining the Monarchy is important to consider, not least because the success of a referendum could hinge on this question. No Scot has known a different constitutional arrangement. The Monarchy is held to be a source of stability, above the fray of partisan politics, binding the British together over generations. There are undoubtedly many Scots who may support independence, but who maintain a deep affection for the Monarchy and feel that Queen Elizabeth has fulfilled her role as head of state with integrity and deep commitment. The power of the Monarchy is largely symbolic, so Scots should have nothing to fear in terms of it intruding itself into Scottish politics. Countenancing a new form head of state could harm the independence referendum, so the Scots should just keep the Monarchy.
Although this perspective is valid, it could also be argued that Monarchy is antithetical to an egalitarian and meritocratic Scotland. Maintaining the Monarchy indefinitely in an independent Scotland would further perpetuate the myth that there are those who deserve exalted status because they are born into it, not because they earned it. What does this say to citizens both of the current UK, and the generations to come in an independent Scotland? The message seems to be “you can never be head of state because you were born to the wrong parents”. If an independent Scotland aspires to be a truly egalitarian society, maintaining the Monarchy would be an anachronistic refutation.
There are many other arguments supporting each side, which engender passionate debate which could very well swing the results of the referendum one way or another. As someone who deeply respects those who cannot imagine Queen Elizabeth not being their sovereign, particularly those of the WWII generation, yet seeing Monarchy as incompatible with a meritocratic independent Scotland, I propose the following. Include in a written Scottish constitution the Monarchy as the head of state, with present constitutional powers it enjoys. However, when Queen Elizabeth II comes to the end of her reign, the Scottish people are to be consulted in a referendum as to whether her successor should become head of state, or whether the it should be chosen by the people, what form it should take, to be codified in a constitutional amendment. This would both assure that Elizabeth will always be the Queen for those who treasure her status, and would vote ‘no’ for that reason, yet assure that in Independent Scotland will not be forever shackled to the Monarchy. It may well be that there is broad popular support for Charles or William to become Scots’ sovereign, but there should be a vote. In the infamous ‘communist peasant’ scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, King Arthur boldly declared “you don’t vote for Kings”. Scots can break with that precedent.
The question of the head of state in an independent Scotland is not something which can be put off until after a referendum. It should be debated and codified in a written Constitution to be ratified in the event of a ‘yes’ referendum vote, so that Scots have all the information necessary to make a clear choice on their constitutional future. This will compel the unionists to present their arguments in favor of maintaining the Monarchy, then let the reasoning stand or fall on its merits. Scots deserve nothing less.
First published on Newsnet.scot on 6 August 2012 as part of a series of articles on constitutional issues published between July 2012 and Sept 2014.