By Reuben Duffy – Member of Our Republic
Republicanism in modern Scotland is a strange beast. In spite of the sometimes ferocious constitutional debate, there are few who call for a republic, either Scottish or British. But that is not to say republicanism is absent. Indeed, Scottish republicanism has a long and storied history.
In the wake of victory against Germany, the United Kingdom and by extension Scotland was governed by the post-war consensus. British power remained evident also. Whilst the Empire was beginning to slip away and the global influence of Her Majesty’s Government along with it, Britain retained some trappings of its former great power status. The coronation of Elizabeth II was hailed as the beginning of a second Elizabethan age to match the glories of a past England.
As the years went on, the ‘new Elizabethan age’ failed to deliver glories for the creaking imperial edifice. Fourteen British colonies became independent between 1957 and 1964. It is in this environment, as the sun was beginning to set upon the British Empire, that Scottish republicanism can be better defined. William Hamilton MP is perhaps a salient example of this phase of Scottish republicanism, in that there is nothing particularly Scottish about it. His rages against royalty were primarily based on arguments of expense. In 1975 for example, Hamilton moved to establish a government department dealing with the finances of the Crown with the aim of bringing transparency and parliamentary scrutiny to the Royal purse. Hamilton is an excellent example of the moderate leftist phase of Scottish republicanism. Hamilton’s republicanism perhaps owed more to the fact that his Fife constituency had a particularly radical history rather than any nationalist leanings, had Hamilton been elected in Finchley instead of Fife his brand of republicanism may have remained unaltered. Hamilton is the epitome of this Scot-less republicanism, concerned more with penny-pinching than matters of royalty and republics.
What explains this lack of Scottishness then? Up until the 1960s, Scottish nationalism was ambiguous about its position on the left-right axis. As Scottish nationalism gained more popularity in the 60s and 70s, the SNP devoted more time to its ideological leaning. By 1974, the SNP was officially describing itself as social-democratic. So, throughout the 60s and 70s, left-wing ideas and Scottish nationalism were increasingly in contact.
What consequences did this left-wing nationalism have for republicanism? The answer may be found in the pages of the New Left Review, an outlet crucial for the intellectual growth of left-Wing Scottish nationalism. Of note is Tom Nairn. As a nationalist, republican and socialist all at once, Nairn himself is essential to understanding this synthesis era.
An article from 1981 reveals Nairn’s thoughts on ‘socialists’ who would declare loyalty to the crown, that they are not genuine socialists at all. In 1968, Nairn wrote that the Scottish sense of equality is derived from religion, that all are equal in the eyes of the Lord. However, he considered this Calvinist formulation passive and non-revolutionary. Nairn finished his essay with a call for a left-Wing Scottish Nationalism. As the British state floundered through the crises of the 60s, intellectuals like Nairn viewed nationalism as essential to advance the cause of the left.
In 1981, Nairn stated his belief that that the foundations of the monarchy will crumble in part due to separatist agitation in Scotland. Nairn wrote that the immediate aim of his writing on British republicanism is not to discover how to abolish the monarchy but instead to make the discussion of such an ideology acceptable once again.
Alongside Perry Anderson, Nairn also makes the argument that the British state has remained underdeveloped and stunted since 1688-89 and that British capitalism in turn owed its weaknesses to the primitive feudalistic British state. Essentially, the lack of a proper revolution as happened elsewhere in Europe saddled modern Britain with a stunted 17th Century state structure. So, the British state may be understood as almost uniquely archaic. It is through a historical analysis of republicanism in Scotland that an understanding of the process through which this settlement has been overturned in Scotland.
However, despite both Nairn’s beliefs and the leftward journey of Scottish nationalism, there would be more bumps in the road for Scottish republicans. Of significance is the ‘79 group within the SNP. This faction had three main ideological driving forces: independence, socialism, and republicanism. The republican ideology came from the influence of Chris and Roseanna Cunningham who themselves were influenced by their experiences in Australia. Perhaps it is best to describe the 79 Group as a false start for Scottish republicanism, as they were soon expelled from the SNP for a myriad of reasons, and a rout of explicit left-wing nationalism.
If explicit nationalist republicanism experienced a false start, the implicit variety would fare differently. It is in the 1989 Claim of Right that this implicit republicanism may be found. Issued by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, the text of the 1989 Claim reads:
‘We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount.
We further declare and pledge that our actions and deliberations shall be directed to the following ends:
To agree a scheme for an Assembly or Parliament for Scotland;
To mobilise Scottish opinion and ensure the approval of the Scottish people for that scheme; and
To assert the right of the Scottish people to secure implementation of that scheme.’
The Claim of Right reaffirms that there exists a separate constitutional tradition of popular sovereignty in Scotland. This declaration puts front and central that of the right of the Scottish people to decide their own future in line with the principles of popular sovereignty. The Claim of Right ‘shot a beam of republican optimism through the mirk of Scottish politics’.
The Claim is of great significance to the revival of Scottish republicanism, for two reasons. Firstly, the Claim refutes any form of democratic legitimacy that the British state might expect to have in Scotland. This is revolutionary and testament to the significance of the Claim. Secondly, the Claim’s proposal for a Constitutional Convention as the means through which Scots would exercise their right to self-determination. These two features identify why the Claim of Right is the perfect example of this phase of Scottish republicanism – representative of a quiet revolution.
The Anderson-Nairn thesis asserts that 1688 denied Scotland a proper bourgeoisie revolution in the manner of the continent. The Claim of Right is perhaps restitution of that historical fact. Further evidence of this can be found in the supporters of the Claim. The list includes MPs, MEPs, local authorities, political parties, churches, trade unions, small businesses, and other social movements. Save perhaps the trade unions, these are all organs of the Scottish bourgeoisie and representative of the quiet ‘revolution’ emanating from the Scottish bourgeoisie and directed against the archaic British state. The Thatcherite project radicalised the Scottish middle class into action. The result, the Claim of Right, is a bourgeois document, evidenced by the backgrounds in the signatories and its drafters.
The structures and procedures of the Edinburgh Parliament stand as proof of this triumph of the Scottish bourgeoisie. The First Minister is formally nominated by elected MSPs rather than being appointed by the monarch as in Westminster. But perhaps the best example of this quasi-republicanism can be found in symbols. Specifically, comparing the parliamentary opening ceremonies of Holyrood and Westminster. In the former, we see a toned down and informal atmosphere in stark contrast to the opulence of the latter. In the Westminster ceremony, the Queen dresses in a jewel-encrusted dress with the potential to blind any onlookers who can see past her golden throne.
The Holyrood ceremony is deliberately designed to foster this contrast. In the 1999 Opening Ceremony, the republican Burns poem ‘A Mans A Man for A’ That’ was recited in the presence of the Queen. Her informal role of Queen of Scots is significantly more limited than that of her formal position as Queen of the United Kingdom, representative of the quasi-republicanism present.
It is in the First Minster Donald Dewar that the clearest representation of this more distant and informal relationship can be found. Dewar himself is perhaps the most salient example of the nature of Scottish republicanism at this time. Middle Class and a small n-nationalist, Dewar embodied the victory of the Scottish middle class over the archaic British state achieved by the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. Dewar was instinctively a republican but during the opening of the Scottish Parliament, such sympathies did not prevent him from forming a rapport with the Queen. In spite of the triumph of Scotland’s bourgeoisie over the feudal British state through devolution, there was no immediate public conflict and explicit republicanism remained outside of the political mainstream.
However, the devolved institutions of Scotland are not simply bastions of republicanism or were designed with that in mind. A belief in ‘new politics’ and European influences informed the structures of the new parliament rather than any latent republicanism. Nevertheless, this remains evidence of a quasi-republican Scottish constitution at the least and some ‘accidental’ republican influence. Given the close links between the Crown and Anglo-British nationalism alongside the dominance of the republican model in Europe, even if the architects of devolution did not intend to construct a quasi-republican constitution they inadvertently did so through their influence from republican-infused ideologies.
Despite these institutional stirrings, open republicanism in Scotland’s major political parties is elusive. However, it is the position of the SNP that is of particular note given they are both the dominant party in the independence movement and the Scottish Parliament. By their own words, the SNP are committed to retaining the monarchy in an independent Scotland. What is of note is their earlier commitments to what form of monarchical government will grace Scotland. In 2002 the SNP envisaged the vice-regal role going to the Chancellor of Scotland, the new role for the Presiding Officer. Such a policy furthers the quietly revolutionary strain of Scottish republicanism in many ways. This position would be no colonial hangover like in Canada or Australia, instead, as the Presiding Officer is a directly elected MSP who in turn is chosen by parliament, the vice-regal role of Chancellor would be indirectly elected by the Scottish Parliament.
However, in the 2013 white paper on independence, no mention was made of this position. Rather, the passages on the Head of State spoke only of Scotland’s commitment to the Crown. But, nevertheless, their previous policy commitments illustrate the SNP’s commitment to the ideals of Scotland’s quasi-republicanism. Irrespective of whether this position is created, Scotland’s quasi-republican institutions remain. An indirectly elected representative of the Crown would only be more evidence of this fact.
Even if it were incidental or accidental, this quiet, creeping institutional pseudo-republicanism is not mere window dressing for Scotland, it has had far-reaching consequences. It can be tempting to view the constant clashes between London and Edinburgh as conflicts of identity, competing nationalisms etc. This may be part of the story but there is another aspect of the conflict – the clash of institutions. Since a pro-independence majority was returned in May the will of the Scottish people expressed through their quasi-republican institutions will crash headlong into the archaic British principle of the crown-in-parliament.
Overall, it is quite clear that in the reign of Elizabeth II, there have existed two distinct yet overlapping phases of Scottish republicanism; a left-wing one followed by a nationalist one. The left-wing phase saw generic anti-monarchists like William Hamilton dominate at first but, as the decline of Britain continued, Scottish nationalism came into contact with left-wing ideals and by proxy, republicanism. This ‘synthesis’ strain lasted throughout the 70s and partially into the 80s. However, as the Claim of Right exemplifies, near the end of Thatcher’s premiership any allusion to left-wing ideals had mostly been dropped and Scottish republicanism had taken on a thoroughly nationalist outlook and a much more implicit character. With the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the bourgeoisie of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen found a quiet triumph over the uniquely archaic and primitive British state. It is important that the journey of Scottish republicanism be understood for what it is, a quiet revolution that Scotland previously missed out on. The question that now must be asked is this, will the Scottish bourgeoisie settle for this revised settlement? Or will dissolution of the Union and complete erasure of all traces of the primitive British state be necessary to complete the process of their ‘revolution’?