Is there any more ludicrous display which shows just how out of touch our political system is? A Prince sat in obsolete uniform, on a throne of gold surrounded by riches, flanked by family who have done nothing to earn their place, reading laws he has no choice but to sign.
This flagrant display of obscene wealth, of unearned and unaccountable power, by a Prince who feels entitled to rule by birth right, reading laws that require his signature to exist.
This annual farce, this anachronistic pantomime, heralded by people in century-old suits searching the cellars just in case another Catholic has decided to stow barrels of gunpowder down there to massacre our Parliamentarians. What did the BBC note of this absurd ceremony? Only that it was a woman, for the first time, leading the profession of old men into the cellars.
It’s 2022. It has been 400 years since the Gunpowder Plot and it has taken this long to involve one woman in the proceedings. This isn’t a notable improvement, it’s pathetic, and our national media should have the nerve to say it.
For a marginally shorter 350 years an MP, elected by the people to represent them, is held hostage in Buckingham Palace for the duration of the speech. Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick explained that during his 2014 time being the designated hostage it was made clear to him that the military would literally immediately murder him if the Monarch came to any harm.
The MPs then ceremoniously slam the doors of parliament in the face of the Queen’s representative to signify their independence. That famous independence that requires that laws they vote for require the Monarch’s sign-off before they can become law. They then follow the representative as they’ve been instructed, in a fairly on-the-nose representation of how wafer-thin this independence truly is.
Is this who we are? Let alone who we want to be? This isn’t a play, some entertaining historic re-enactment you can go to to see how things used to be in our archaic past where the Monarchy ruled with entitled pomp and arrogance. This is a state proceeding our representatives are forced to undergo as if to rub their faces in how flawed and antiquated our democracy truly is.
We can do so much better than this charade. It’s time to drag ourselves into the present. It is time for change.
“As a party to the exploitation and profiteering of the slave trade we in Scotland cannot compare our experience to that of the people of Jamaica, who suffered under the very same system that built much of Scotland’s modern prosperity. In the early 19th century Scots owned a third of slaves in Jamaica, and that is a legacy we must confront ourselves. Jamaica’s relationship with the British Empire, and the Monarchy that still marks their rule over that Empire as a point of pride, is necessary different from our own. This week we have seen demands for an apology from the Monarchy by protesters and dozens of pollical leaders in Jamaica for their part in the slave trade ahead of the visit of William Mountbatten-Windsor. It is right that the Monarchy, an institution that still continues to benefit from the wealth and power they gained from the horrors of the slavery, apologises for their part in that trade and the people of Jamaica have every right to demand that apology. For William to avoid it it is to deny his family’s direct profit from it, a denial which made from palaces and golden thrones is completely untenable.
Though our relationship to the legacy of the British Empire may be different, the nature of inherited, unaccountable and undemocratic power does not change, and nor does the right for a people to freely determine their own government and future. The people of Jamaica must be free to choose their own course and to choose who represents them, as should the people of Scotland. The only way to check this consent to rule is through democratic elections and an elected Head of State.
We wish the people of Jamaica the best of luck on their journey to implementing full democracy free from Britain’s Monarchy.
The jubilee celebration has triggered fresh debate about the monarch’s role in Scotland, and raised questions over possible heads of state after independence.
Our Republic told The National: “The monarchy is a corruptive influence on our society and culture, creating the impression that unaccountable power, being above the law, is a natural state for people with enough wealth and with the right families.”
“This corruption is unsustainable & will not be saved by a desperate attempt to prop them up by throwing pamphlets at children.It’s about time Scotland returned to our roots, of democratic consent to rule and the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to choose who represents us.”
On Wednesday 19th January Prime Minister’s Questions was focused on one thing: The ongoing scandal of parties held at 10 Downing Street during a time where lockdown was in force across the country.
But for a moment, the spectacle turned to farce as Keir Starmer was asked to withdraw a question over something that had nothing to do with parliamentary standards or his colleagues in the Chamber.
He was asked to withdraw it because he mentioned the Queen.
He said “Last year Her Majesty the Queen sat alone when she marked the passing of the man she’d been married to for 73 years, she followed the rules of the country that she leads.
On the eve of that funeral, a suitcase was filled with booze and wheeled into Downing Street, a DJ played and staff partied late into the night.
The prime minister has been forced to hand an apology to Her Majesty the Queen. Isn’t he ashamed that he didn’t hand in his resignation at the same time?”
The speaker intervened, saying “We normally would not, quite rightly, mention the royal family. We don’t get into discussions on the royal family.”
The rules say “No question can be put which brings the name of the Sovereign or the influence of the Crown directly before Parliament, or which casts reflections upon the Sovereign or the royal family.
A question has been altered at the Speaker’s direction on the ground that the name of the Sovereign should not be introduced to affect the views of the House. Questions are, however, allowed on such matters as the costs to public funds of royal events and royal palaces.”
The Royal family, an institution that informs the very workings of the House of Commons; an institution that is capable of rejecting or requesting changes to law as the see fit; an institution whose unaccountable influence is immeasurable, cannot be mentioned by elected Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. Their influence cannot be mentioned in that chamber.
That doesn’t seem right, does it?
In a country where a Monarchy rules over all, opens parliament and reads the laws the government intends to implement, that parliament can’t even mention their name?
In a country where the Monarchy has been found to have repeatedly meddled in the law for their own benefit, where the family is gripped by crisis but will continue to hold the right to lean on the government for their own ends without public oversight or accountability, that parliament can’t even mention their influence?
It seems every time the Monarchy crop up in our news it’s to give us more reasons why their power cannot be left unchallenged.
There’s a better way. It’s time we elected our own Head of State, and held them to account to the people they rule over.
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’?
At Our Republic, we prefer to focus on the positive case for a democracy and criticising the corruption that power unaccountable to the people brings. However, I thought it prudent to examine something that I, as a foreigner, find especially peculiar about the Royal Family. The entire industry of commenting on every move of the royals is something I have tried to ignore it for most of my time in the UK (as it is profoundly uninteresting to me) but inevitably found myself seeing in the news.
It seems like every major publication, from The Sun through The Independent to The Guardian, has their own, more or less regularly updated section on the royals. People who read those sections can discover truly riveting things, such as Prince Charles’ favourite songs, Prince William & Kate Middleton’s unusual bedroom set-up, the Queen being rude to her grandson and so on. All of these articles, hyper-focusing on the extremely minute details of the life of the royals, have always struck me as weird and a bit creepy. People born or marrying into the royal family are forced to give away their privacy and various bits of information about them are guaranteed to appear in the media sooner or later. The article I cited earlier, about William and Kate’s bedroom, reveals a journalist has obtained the floor plan of one of their houses. I don’t have any sympathy for the monarchy, but the thought of my house plan being out there in the public would fill me with abject dread, whether I had a security detail or not. I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to have your every decision scrutinised, made the topic of articles.
I am sure there are people out there who want to know whether Harry and Meghan talked to the Queen about their daughter’s name, or whether the Queen met with her great-grandson. But to me, this is a fundamentally strange fascination. A while ago, a monarchist told me that a true royal family should lead the country by example and royal subjects should strive to emulate the monarchs in their daily life. If that is indeed the case, I fail to see how being mean to your grandchildren, being required to consult the name of your child with your grandma and not meeting your great-grandchildren because of overwork are positive role models. If anything, the obsessive coverage of the royals shows us a picture of a broken and very dysfunctional family.
Media coverage of political figures is a normal part of life in democracies. Without it, all manners of scandals and frauds go unseen. The coverage of the royal family only reveals the rot and decay that comes from having enjoyed unaccountable power for generations. Power dressed in Byzantine traditions, jewels plundered from the Global South, custom-made clothing and vast amounts of gold, while common people struggle to keep themselves fed and housed. This, perhaps, is the clearest case for setting the monarchy aside and being led by people that truly represent us.
As they were sworn in as MSPs our representatives were required to swear an oath or affirmation containing the following: “I […] bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Her Heirs and Successors.” That is the only requirement.
There is no need to declare their status as public servants, their duty to support and represent their constituents, that they will do their best to deliver the policies they were elected on, not even their duty to the country. Only this. Allegiance to the Monarchy.
Any Member who refuses to declare their loyalty to the Monarchy will be unable to serve their elected role and will be stripped of pay and allowances until they have done. If they continue to refuse the oath they shall be removed as an MSP.
This is not a fit declaration for elected representatives in a 21st-century state. It is unfit to represent the democracy that elected our MSPs. Scotland can, and should, expect better.
MSPs should not have to take an oath under protest to serve as our representatives.
This cannot be repeated. For too long our Parliament has forced MSPs to undermine the legitimacy of their democratic mandate by putting the Monarchy before their constituents.
They are elected as public servants, not as subjects of the crown.
Our Republic’s proposed revision to the oath: “I (Member’s Name), do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the sovereign people of Scotland and to our democracy, according to Law.”
“We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs”
The origins of the Scottish Parliament can be drawn back to a turning-point moment thirty years ago as 160 representatives from Scotland’s politics, Churches, academia, trade unions and other civic leaders came together to sign the Claim of Right. Ten years later politicians sat in a Scottish Parliament for the first time in nearly 300 years.
It was signed by almost all the Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs of the time. They included future political leaders Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, and Charles Kennedy. The SNP refused to continue as part of the Convention when it did not consider the case for independence, but have since hailed and supported the principle of people’s sovereignty declared by it.
The claim now lies in the Donald Dewar room at Holyrood.
In the Scottish Parliament on May 13th this year 11 newly elected MSPs protested the oath or affirmation they were forced to make. By law, they had no choice but to state “I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Her Heirs and Successors, according to Law.” Should they have refused they would have been removed from Parliamentary duties and, two weeks later, removed from office.
Among them were six Green MSPs, three from Labour, and two of the SNP.
One of them was Nicola Sturgeon, who stated “I wish to say that the SNP pledges loyalty to the people of Scotland, in line with the Scottish constitutional tradition of sovereignty of the people.”
So what is this tradition, where does it come from, and what should it mean for our parliament going into the future?
To find one of its origins, we have to go back to one of the foundational events of the Scottish nation – to 1320 and the Declaration of Arbroath. The declaration made clear what the expectations were of the Scottish King, Robert the Bruce – “King, not only by right of succession according to our laws and customs, but also with the due consent of us all”.
That consent came only a hundred years after the English Magna Carta that dented the absolute power of Monarchs over their Barons, the Church, and the law. Importantly, the Scottish declaration included the concept of a check and notice that the King could be legitimately overthrown should he betray the trust of his people, that the Barons would “we would instantly strive to expel him as our enemy and the betrayer of his own rights and ours, and we would choose another king to rule over us who would be equal to the task of our defence.”
Although it wasn’t a statement of true popular sovereignty, as the signatories would have had little real concept of such popular rule at the time, it did set a precedent. That precedent was that power was given not by birthright or divine provenance, but by contract. They ruled with consent, and should they breach that consent they would be deposed. This concept of rule by consent may have gone on to shape the American declaration of independence and the other revolutions against the absolute Royalties claiming divine right of the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1689 this would be tested when the then Scottish Parliament passed the Claim of Right Act and declared James VII deposed because he had “invaded the fundamental constitution of the Kingdom and altered it from a legally limited monarchy to an arbitrary despotic power”. The Act drew from the thinking of George Buchanan (Scottish Gaelic – Seòras Bochanan), historian, humanist, and tutor to Mary, Queen of Scots. He laid down the doctrine that the source of all political power is the people and that the monarch is bound by those conditions under which he was entrusted with supreme power, and that it is lawful to resist, even to punish, tyrants. This was not initially well-received, condemned by parliament in 1584 and 1664, and in 1683 the University of Oxford ordered his work burned by a hangman.
The Claim of Right Act is an assertion that ultimate power rests with the ‘Nation’, of which Parliament is but the representative. It also condemned the act of attempting to manipulate the decisions of Judges, and their removal, change of pay, or appointment according to only the wishes of the King as “contrary to law”. It made explicit the need for the law to not only be independent of executive power, but superior to it. No ruler, of any station, should be above the law or able to bend it to their will.
The Claim of Right is founded on the rejection of the absolute authority of the Crown, or the Crown in Parliament, to impose policy or governance on Scotland against the will of the people. It grants sovereignty to those people. Its reinforcement in modern politics challenges all those who claim to value democracy to stand against it. Are their claimed values real, or do they abandon them when given the chance to impose their will on the people against their democratic Claim of Right?
The SNP has increasingly turned to this principle as a weapon against the archaic trappings of Westminster, which has long valued the sovereignty of Parliament, bestowed upon it by the Crown, rather than that of the people. This clash of constitutional values between England and Scotland may never have come to pass without the arrival of the Scottish independence movement, but now it has laid bare a fundamental gulf between the democratic principles of the Claim of Right, which people across Britain likely feel some affinity to, and the sovereignty of the Crown.
Recently the SNP Westminster group brought a motion to the Commons declaring “the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.” A literal declaration of the principles of the Claim by Right.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon threw down the gauntlet, saying “The founding principle of that claim of right is one that all parties which have taken their place in this parliament should be able to subscribe to… There has never been a more important moment to recommit ourselves to the guiding principle of the claim of right that the people, the Scottish people, are sovereign.”
The recent history of the Claim of Right shows there is strong cross-party support, even to a degree it can be considered the status quo of Scottish constitutional politics, that it is the right of people of Scotland to choose the governance that best represents them and represent that which they no longer consider just. The Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrats backed this principle in the 80s. The Scottish Greens, SNP, and some Labour MSPs have re-asserted its relevance to our current parliament in their protests to the oath they were forced to make to the Windsor Monarchy.
Although we can look to history, learn from it, draw inspiration from it, and build upon it, we should never be limited to and by our past. The Claim of Right, and the sovereignty of the people, are the foundations we can build on as we imagine and fight for a Scotland fit for our future. That can begin with an oath for our Parliamentarians that reflects the heritage of our democracy and the modern one that elected them but must be so much more than that.
The sovereignty of the people should be the principle our modern nation rests upon, not limited by the anachronistic oaths and rituals that Westminster politics too readily turns to, hiding the Crown’s undemocratic sovereignty behind institutional procedures too obscure and opaque for citizens to follow. That means a universal recognition that only the people of Scotland can decide whether devolution suits their needs, or whether independence does. It is broader than that still. It applies to the whole constitutional settlement of rule we currently inhabit, including the independence of our courts, the structure of our Parliaments, and the powers and station of our Monarchy.
The Claim of Right leaves the power in the hands of the people of Scotland to reject the Monarchy and replace it with whatever institution they decide upon. The rule of the Monarch, and our Parliaments, can only happen by their consent, regardless of the claimed sovereignty of the Crown in our Parliamentary oaths. There is no principle of government and our constitution older, nor more fundamental to Scottish politics, than that.
Recently, the Times reported that there was a conspiracy for an unconfirmed number of SNP MSPs to immediately defect to the Alba party after they had been sworn in. This would reportedly have happened if Alba had won even a single MSP at Holyrood Parliament. This is obviously a democratic outrage. But why?
If a member of Parliament defects from one party to another, should they resign their seat and go through a by-election?
This question doesn’t lend itself to easy answers, so I thought it’d be a great question to dive into, looking at it from the perspective of the values of Our Republic.
In a representative democracy, we recognize that there are a lot of issues that we should work together to solve rather than trying to do things individually. This is everything from the NHS; defence; roads and infrastructure, to when the bins are collected and whether or not the local park should be refurbished.
So we choose someone in order to represent us on these issues and they go on to become experts who solve these big problems for us while we get on with our lives.
How do we choose the person to go make these decisions for us? We elect them. In a perfect system, we’d probably know the candidates we were electing personally, or get to go and talk to them ourselves. And actually, if you head up to northern Scotland, you’ll find that many councillors from smaller rural communities are exactly like this. Local independents who know their constituents personally and are trusted to make good decisions.
But in the busy hubbub of the majority of Scotland, our candidates join parties. These parties work together to come up with platforms (a set of policies) and we elect our representatives based on the party they represent.
So when we elect representatives from a party, then we are endorsing the platform of that party giving them the mandate to try and implement it. This is how modern politics works. Our representatives, whether councillors, MSPs or MPs are elected to do two things: Implement the platform of the party they are members of and represent the interests of the people they were elected to serve.
So what does this mean for public representatives who defect and change parties mid-term?
Since we elect our representatives based on their party, if they change party, they no longer have the mandate to represent us and they should step down, prompting a by-election. A by-election provides the people they represent the chance to either endorse or reject their new platform.
In a well-functioning democracy, there are rules, and there are norms. And the normal behaviour for a representative who changes party should be to return to the people and ask them to endorse their new platform.
But what if they refuse to stand down? Well, then there should be a way for the people to recall their representative in those rare instances when our representatives refuse to respect the democratic process.
There are many reasons someone may resign from a party, and often this is done in a manner that is principled and in good faith. But if the representative is confident of this, then they should not fear a by-election, where they have the opportunity to put their case before the people they represent.
Because, fundamentally, our representatives are public servants. They should represent us. And if they wish to change the platform that they pursue, they should do it knowing full well that the people they represent consent to this change.
The principles of Our Republic should be reflected throughout our democratic system. We should have confidence that every one of our representatives was chosen by us through a democratic process. They should be honest about what they represent and, if they fall short, we should have the option to remove them.
During the height of the Brexit negotiations, every day was another day of drama in Westminster. One of those days Boris Johnson decided he was done with Parliament for the time being and suspended it for five weeks (five times longer than usual) by sending Jacob Rees-Mogg to speak to the Queen at Balmoral Castle.
The move was described as a “constitutional outrage”, Johnson was called a “tin-pot dictator”. Thousands protested, 21 Tory MPs rebelled, and all sorts of bizarre and archaic tactics were employed in the Commons to try and force the Government to change course. The measure was rushed to the courts, ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court and declared as an “extreme” effect on the “fundamentals of democracy”. Parliament returned after over two weeks.
But… given that the declaration was unlawful, opposed by most MPs, and as an attack on the “fundamentals” of our democracy, why did the Queen consent to it? Given her consent was required in the first place, and her constitutional role as being the power who the Government governs on behalf of.
If her consent wasn’t required… what is the point of our Monarch’s constitutional role at all?
The British Monarchy exists in a kind of purgatory zone of political power, both technically holding significant power and responsibility, and realistically being unable to wield any. They’re upheld as the ideal constitutional monarchy but the exact limits of their powers aren’t actually written down anywhere and there’s a common understanding between the Monarchy and Government that any actual use of that power would be used to strip them of even the pretense they had any. Without any kind of democratic legitimacy behind them the Monarchy is toothless, an empty throne wearing the crown itself would hold the same constitutional weight.
So what are we left with? A Prime Minister whose power technically comes from the Queen, but given she cannot actually protest essentially wields them absolutely on his own behalf, and a legislature that is reliant on flimsy and meaningless arcane proceedings to hold a government to account that the government frequently, and without consequence, can simply ignore.
The result is a Prime Minister whose personal political power is without any real guaranteed limitations and is subject only to a long tradition of nods and winks he is free to, and now often does, ignore whenever he deems fit.
The importance of checks and balances on power is fundamental to the very concept of modern democracy. The division of power between branches of government is a fundamental necessity to prevent any single person or group from taking absolute control and ruling by decree. It is the safeguard against dictatorship.
So if the Monarchy cannot act, what is our alternative? It’s simple – A Head of State that has the legitimacy of a democratic mandate and accountability to wield the powers required to act as a check on a Prime Minister’s power. This democratic mandate, the legitimacy of being elected by the people of Scotland, gives them the power to refuse a Government that seeks to undermine rights, democracy, and the constitution. The democratic accountability, of there being regular constitutionally require elections for this role, would ensure that the people are able to hold the Head of State to the same standard.
However, an executive President only shifts the problem. One in the US or French style of shifting the powers of the Prime Minister into the hands of a directly elected Head of State has simply added one step more distance between the legislature our Prime Minister has demonstrated their capacity to ignore when standing in the chamber, to a person who can ignore them all the better standing far away from it. The flagrant use of rule-by-decree used by American Presidents through executive orders demonstrates this problem.
An elected Head of State can operate as a check on executive power that a Monarch cannot, but should not wield that power themselves. They are a circuit breaker, a fall-back option that dissuades the executive from over-reaching their constitutional limits and has the legitimacy and legal power to ensure they do not.
Beyond this role they can take on the remaining duties of a Head of State – Representing the nation, performing ceremonial and diplomatic duties, that the Monarchy has now been reduced to. Roles that a Prime Minister is best free from, to concentrate on their duties governing the nation.
We can see in our neighbours in Ireland the uniting influence of a non-executive President. A single figure elected not on ideological grounds, as they will have no power to implement that ideology, but on pure preference of a nation on who can represent them as a whole. Someone they can choose, not one who is forced upon them through birthright or seizure of absolute power. Someone they can replace, should they ever fail in their duties or the nation believes a new face is needed.
Scotland should have a Parliamentary Republic, led by a popularly elected President. That is the vision of a Scottish Republic I believe in.