On Saturday 4th June we were joined by 100 other people from across Scotland and from as far as Nottingham to call for a Republic in Scotland. To say this exceeded our expectations would be an understatement. During a weekend where natural republicans understandably looked to get away and shut off the media barrage of Monarchist PR it was phenomenal to share the land in front of the National Monument with so many calling for change.
We heard from MP Tommy Sheppard, new Edinburgh Councillors and New Scots Yule Bandel and Martha Mattos Coelho. Activists and representatives from the SNP, Scottish Greens, Scottish Labour, Scottish Socialists, the Radical Independence Campaign, and the Republican Socialist Platform took up the mic to say their piece on their vision of a Scotland without the Monarchy. We are a democratic movement and that was made clear by everyone having a chance to stand before everyone and have their say.
From across the political spectrum came the same call – For an elected head of state for Scotland and an end to the hereditary Monarchy.
Beyond that not everyone agreed. There were speakers following one another who fundamentally disagreed in the political future of Scotland, and made that clear. Our audience challenged speakers when they disagreed and cheered their approval at words that called to them.
That’s healthy. That is what democracy should look like.
It is also an important step in the right direction. It’s taking the debate beyond our obvious shared platform and on to the important debates of what the specifics of our future should look like past the Monarchy we all know has to go. It’s the rekindling of the debate over the form our democracy should take and our relationship to other democracies around us.
We live in an era of “unprecedented” politics. Every year seems to bring another wave of norm-breaking events, political decisions, and international developments. It is only a matter of time before the next unprecedented event is the succession crisis of Charles Mountbatten-Windsor and the wave of republicanism that will come with it. We intend to be ready for that time. By making the arguments now, by restarting the debate, we can ensure we are ready to take on that crisis and win the argument for an alternative to succession by birthright.
We know the opinion of the Scottish public is swinging with us. Already only a minority still support the Monarchy and that proportion shrinks rapidly every year. So our role is not just to promote that journey but also to advertise and discuss the alternatives.
You can expect more of that from us going forwards. The debate that began at the Rally for a Republic will continue and we hope you’ll all be involved.
As support for the Monarchy falls to an all time low in the run up to the Platinum Jubilee, with only a minority of Scots supporting the retention of the Monarchy, we are hoping to provoke a long overdue discussion about the future of Scotland. A future without the Monarchy to become a republic.
On the 4th of June, Our Republic are organising a ‘Rally for a Republic’ on Calton Hill from 15:00. The rally aims to hear from speakers from across the political spectrum to demand and discuss a more democratic future for Scotland.
All power in Scotland should be founded on democratic principles. 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.
We want to offer an alternative vision of Scotland. A modern, forward thinking republic with a written constitution. Over the last five years, we have seen how undemocratic Britain has become. From proroguing parliament, political norms abandoned by the government, and high profile members of the royal family entitled to their status in line to rule our country being indicted in criminality. None of these things should be possible in a modern country.
There is cross-party support for the principle that it is the right of people of Scotland to choose the governance that best represents them and remove that which they no longer consider just. A principle set out by the Claim of Right, signed by members of multiple political parties and community representatives from churches to trade unions. As the Monarchy loses majority support of the Scottish public it is time to reconsider whether their status is the will of the people of Scotland. It is time to re-open the debate and decide whether the successor to Elizabeth Windsor ought to be a man entitled by birth right or someone decided by and accountable to all of us.
We hope that Scotland will follow in the footsteps of many other commonwealth countries who are beginning to question the Monarchy. Barbados removed the Queen as head of state in November 2021, while Belize, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis have all indicated they intend to follow suit. Similarly, the question has been raised recently in Canada where 60% of Canadians said the Queen and the Royal Family should have no formal role in Canadian society. We intend to make the case that our future lies with them, not with clinging to undemocratic institutions of our past.
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.