Democratically divided, royally united . . .

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A nation democratically divided, royally united . . . the Scottish independence referendum was by any measure a momentous occasion in British history. Nothing less than the future of Scotland and the United Kingdom itself hung in the balance. For the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) it was the moment they had dreamed of when Scots could fulfil their historic destiny and become an independent nation. For their unionist opponents it was a threat to a three hundred year-old political union and the future of sixty-four million people. Which made it rather surprising that the nation’s main political leaders were nearly caught napping as the ‘Yes’ campaign gathered momentum in the final days. Part of the reason had been that the political establishment wanted to keep a tactful distance from what was, strictly speaking, a matter for Scots to decide alone. In particular the Prime Minister’s passion had to be tempered by the rules of democracy and, not wanting to further alienate a nation which has few enough Scottish Tory supporters as it is (the party gaining only 16% of the vote and one MP in the 2010 election), David Cameron had avoided too direct an intervention. As had Deputy PM Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Also weighing heavily in their calculations was the belief that a reasonably comfortable victory was all but assured. With that in mind the ‘Better Together’ campaign focused its efforts on rubbishing the SNP’s economic plan for independence. Business would take fright, Scotland would be left without a currency, North Sea oil revenues could not be depended on. Stripped down to basics the message was why take the risk when you can have the best of both worlds: the Scottish parliament at Holyrood and the benefits of being part of the union. As the big day – September 18, 2014 – neared the pollsters’ predictions from as far back as 2012 seemed solid. The ‘Yes’ vote would do well to get above 40%.

However, no one had fully understood the determination of the independence camp (which politically encompassed the SNP, the Green Party, the Scottish Socialist Party and a left-wing offshoot Solidarity). Underdogs undoubtedly but undaunted by the size of the task and support was growing, creeping into the low forties. Then, in the first week of September, everything shifted up a gear with an opinion poll indicating that the vote would be a close call. On 6 September a YouGov poll put the ‘Yes’ campaign at 51% and ‘No’ at 49%. With many predicting that the undecided voters were up for grabs and that the ‘Yes’ camp could be better at mobilising a disaffected electorate, the outcome looked to be on a knife edge.

It was the moment when everything changed, when the future of the United Kingdom began to come into a sharper if more uncertain focus. The response to the rise of ‘Yes’ support was dramatic as the three main party leaders put aside their differences and, on September 9, issued a joint statement: “There is a lot that divides us – but there’s one thing on which we agree passionately: the United Kingdom is better together. That’s why all of us are agreed the right place for us to be tomorrow is in Scotland, not at Prime Minister’s Questions in Westminster. We want to be listening and talking to voters about the huge choice they face. Our message to the Scottish people will be simple: ‘We want you to stay’.”

In an atmosphere of growing panic there were reports that the Queen was so concerned she had expressed her “horror” to David Cameron at the possible breakup of the country. According to The Sunday Times a spokesman informed the newspaper: “The Queen is a unionist. Lots of people were telling us that it was going to be OK but there is now a great deal of concern.” The Queen is by definition a unionist but neutral in the political debate, so should this be dismissed as a piece of media generated apocrypha or was the ever discreet monarch being cleverly manoeuvred into the public debate by worried unionists?

Buckingham Palace was sufficiently concerned to put out an official statement: “The Sovereign’s constitutional impartiality is an established principle of our democracy and one which the Queen has demonstrated throughout her reign. As such the Monarch is above politics and those in political office have a duty to ensure that this remains the case. Any suggestion that the Queen should wish to influence the outcome of the current referendum campaign is categorically wrong. This is a matter for the people of Scotland.” Whilst the Queen’s position could not be compromised by being dragged into the debate, her position is also very unique and more complex than the taking of sides. In fact both sides in the debate claimed to be pro-monarchist. (Extract © Royalty Magazine Volume 23/08)