The Last Queen of Scotland?

Jennifer Welsh wonders what Queen Elizabeth would think of a United Kingdom minus Scotland.
By: /
July 6, 2012
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

Today, the last day of her week-long visit to Scotland as part of the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations, Queen Elizabeth II will lunch at Scone Palace – the place where Scotland’s ancient kings were crowned. Despite the monarch’s careful efforts to remain one step removed from political matters, the media cannot resist speculating as to what the contours of her relationship with Scotland might be, should this part of the United Kingdom vote in favour of a referendum on independence.

A year ago, during the opening of the Scottish Parliament (Holyrood), Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond warned the queen that independence was “looming” in the wake of the Nationalists’ electoral landslide. (The SNP was elected last year on a platform that included a pledge to hold a referendum in 2014.) However, Salmond backed away from a 1997 SNP pledge to offer Scots a choice in an independent parliament on whether to keep the queen as head of state. Instead, he pledged to retain the queen as Scotland’s head of state, and went on to remind Her Majesty that previous British monarchs had ruled Scotland and England as two sovereign nations. There would be “nothing unusual,” Salmond claimed, about a repeat of such an arrangement.


We’ll never know whether Queen Elizabeth views this possibility the same way. But it is hard to believe that she would welcome the possibility of being the last monarch to reign over a United Kingdom that includes Scotland as a key pillar.

Meanwhile, the two sides of the independence battle are fighting over what question(s) should be put to the Scottish people. For months now, the Nationalists have been dancing around the issue of whether the referendum ballot should include only one question – about whether to have independence – or whether it should also include a secondary question regarding enhanced powers for Scotland within the United Kingdom. This second option has been dubbed “Devo Max” (i.e., a more extensive version of the devolution of powers from Westminster to Holyrood). Naturally, those opposed to independence are not happy with this prospect, and have argued that the whole of the United Kingdom should have a say in the design of such an important question. For its part, the SNP is quick to retort that it is the current Scottish government that should have the “right to design,” and that to suggest otherwise is anti-democratic. This past week, pro-union parties in Scotland have switched tack, and are now demanding that an Expert Commission be established to come up with a referendum question that will be “clear, fair, and simple.” Sound familiar? Maybe the U.K., too, needs a Clarity Act.

In fact, there are many eerie similarities between the looming Scottish referendum and our own brush with breakup in Canada. The events of 1995 are still etched in my consciousness as one of the most defining moments of my own development as an analyst of politics, and as a Canadian citizen. From what I observe of the current landscape, the signs do not look good for the pro-union cause.

To begin, the Scottish Nationalists are enjoying the fact that their leader is perhaps the most intelligent and gifted political figure in the United Kingdom. (This is not to suggest that I agree with Salmond’s vision – only that I have to admire his political skill and acumen.) Similarly, in 1995, the federalist Liberals faced formidable opponents on the side of sovereignty, such as Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau. A more credible and passionate voice on the side of the union is needed.

Second, the “No” campaign is still leading with its head rather than its heart. In late June, Alastair Darling, former chancellor of the Exchequer under the last Labour government and now head of the pro-union campaign, launched the slogan, “Better Together.” The arguments against independence are so far largely economic: One-fifth of the private-sector Scottish workforce is employed by English firms working in Scotland, and 800,000 Scots currently work in England and Wales without the need for passports. Independence would arguably change these facts and dynamics, at a high cost to the Scottish people. Darling has claimed that a vote for independence would be a “one-way ticket to uncertainty.” In short, the “No” side is emphasizing economic logic and fear.

These aren’t bad strategies, but they are not sufficient in and of themselves. Remember the famous rally that took place in Montreal late in the 1995 referendum campaign, when busloads of Canadians from outside Quebec flooded into the city to tell Quebecers how much their fellow citizens wanted them to stay in Canada? I was there on that emotional day, waving my Canadian flag. And I stress the word emotional. The polls showed that the federalists were losing the argument – rationalist economic logic wasn’t making enough impact.

This episode demonstrated two things: first, that “No” campaigns in independence referenda have to have a positive message – not just a negative one, about the costs of leaving; and second, that separatist movements play to questions of identity and belonging – they challenge people to think about, and emphasize, who they are, not just what they have. It’s no surprise, then, that the Scottish “Yes” campaign was launched by a raft of celebrities, including Sir Sean Connery, Alan Cumming, and Brian Cox. Who wouldn’t want to belong to a club that includes them? (Never mind that some of these celebrities reside outside Scotland, and therefore wouldn’t have to live with the implications of independence.)

In the U.K., the “No” campaign is employing media strategists Blue State Digital – the company that helped to sweep both Barack Obama and Francois Hollande to power. My hope is that these savvy operators will understand that strategies aimed at the heart need to be met with the same kind of force. There are some signs that they are on the right track. One of the pro-union slogans – “A strong Scottish Parliament and a key role in a strong and secure United Kingdom” – seems to be subtly playing to the underlying suspicion that an independent Scotland might not provide as much security as a United Kingdom.

But the “No” campaign needs to do much more if it is to take on the likes of Salmond. It also needs to understand much better than it does today what motivates the separatist cause. Last evening, I dined beside an academic from India who had just spent a week touring Scotland. He expressed confusion as to why there was a move for independence in a place like Scotland, which enjoyed a relatively high GDP per capita. It had been his assumption that separatism and secession were problems only for poor and weak states. In answering his question, I simply said, “Remember the power of identity politics.” It is a universal force, and no country is immune.

Photo courtesy of Reuters