Friday, 16 September 2022.
I’m on the way from Edinburgh to London, much like the Queen a few days ago. There’s a fraction less media attention on my journey, which is perhaps just as well, since I noticed on leaving the house that my trousers were already travel-stained. I like to think of this as an ecologically-sustainable wardrobe approach, and know that it will mitigate the disappointment when I spill something on them in the train, as will surely happen.
I have an invite in my pocket, although it’s to my sister’s 50th birthday bash and not a state funeral. I expect the international dignitaries to be largely absent at my sister’s party, although who knows? She does enjoy a bit of pomp and circumstance.
The past few days have prompted some personal reflection on the monarchy, the constitution, and the Union. On Monday and Tuesday of this week I made the trip into town, feeling surprisingly strong emotions in the aftermath of the Queen’s death, and aware that the presence—in Edinburgh—of her coffin, the King, and the Royal Family, was the rarest of events, possibly completely unique. Given that the lying at rest in Edinburgh only occurs when the monarch passes away in Scotland, it has never happened before, and may never happen again.
On Monday afternoon I walked most of the Royal Mile from Holyrood Palace to St Giles’ Cathedral, and along George IV Bridge, witnessing at every turn the outside broadcast trucks, TV gantries, cameras, reporters, and the beginning of the enormous queue of mourners. I cut a few of the corners and walked into George Square and the Meadows, where I bumped into an old friend. He had joined the queue there at 5.15pm and would eventually file past the coffin just over five hours later.
I returned home.
On Tuesday morning, after receiving messages from friends that the queue had lessened dramatically overnight, I made the trip back to the Meadows and joined the again-rapidly-lengthening line just after 11am. My queue buddies immediately in front were from Northern Ireland, and over the course of the next two hours we struck up a friendship, as we moved slowly but steadily through the Old Town, in sunshine and shade, on a beautiful September day.
On the stroke of 1pm I made it into the dignified, reverential atmosphere of St Giles’. With the line of people continually moving, there wasn’t time to stop and reflect at the Royal Standard-draped coffin itself. I found myself simply thinking “Thank you, Ma’am,” as I passed.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity, for I am grateful for her life, her service, and her sacrifice.
I was saddened to hear of protesters, both in Edinburgh and now in London, holding placards displaying slogans such as “Not my King” and “We don’t need a head of state”.
I confess I am a little ignorant of the precise role and duties of a head of state, but on the basis that someone needs to represent us on the world stage, I reckon we do need one.
However, Edinburgh doesn’t really need the Scott Monument. Nor, for that matter, Edinburgh Castle. Perhaps we should raze them both to the ground and build some utilitarian pre-fab offices instead.
Or perhaps we should acknowledge that beautiful architecture, historical monuments, sculptures, paintings and art are worth holding on to. So too are things that link us to our past (even though our past hasn’t been entirely glorious from start to finish) and are part of the fabric and history of our country.
It is, I think, the prerogative of the young, and students, to protest loudly about things. But I find myself, with advancing years, increasingly amused by those who seem to think that they get to choose everything about their life.
If you’re a citizen of the United Kingdom today, then King Charles III is your King. You might wish that were not the case, you might think the monarchy should be abolished. You have the right to hold those views and express them, too. But to say he isn’t your King is to deny a fact of life, and is as pointless as protesting that you’re not one gender or the other, although it is seemingly inflammatory to say such things, these days.
Should we have a democratically-elected head of state? Maybe, strictly speaking, that would be more in keeping with a democratic country. However, practically, would it make any actual difference?
I think my friend Jon should be head of state. He speaks well, and diplomatically, and is well-educated. But a friend of mine wouldn’t be head of state. Were we to get to vote for a head of state, we would be given the choice of a few candidates which had been shortlisted by some complex voting system or other. They wouldn’t do a better job of representing me than the monarch currently does. The risk would be that they would do a considerably worse job.
Queen Elizabeth II did a wonderful job of diplomatically representing the UK on the world stage. Who’s to say Charles won’t do the same?
We elected a new Prime Minister recently, or at least, the members of the Conservative Party did. Prior to that we did elect one as a nation, and arguably we didn’t choose very well. We don’t actually have a tremendous track record of voting for people of integrity, dignity and honour.
Later in the week I met some friends on the prom at Portobello for a coffee and catch-up. Talk turned to the prospect of Scottish independence. They are warmer to the idea than I am. I remain unclear as to how being independent would benefit us in any way.
I accept that Scots feel perhaps ignored by Westminster, and that the ruling Tories, bloated perhaps by the complacent corruption and excesses that a long hold over power seem to bring, do not represent them well. I understand that. But ruling parties come and go, and while the Tories have been in place now for a long time, it will not always be so.
Personally, I wouldn’t expect Scottish politicians, running an independent Scotland, to be any better. I put this to a pro-independence friend around the time of the referendum in 2014.
‘Ah, but at least they’d be our corrupt politicians,’ he replied.
Now, it may be because I’m not Scottish, but this seems like a weak argument. I am, for the record, Northern Irish, and grew up in the Unionist side of the ideological divide, and so perhaps I will forever be biased towards that viewpoint. However, other mindsets that I grew up with there I have now discarded, with an objectivity that comes with living outside the Province.
As a very happy and now long-time resident of Scotland, while I will perhaps never have the viewpoint that a true Scot has, I do have a right to an opinion on how Scotland should be governed.
And Scottish Independence continues to make no sense to me.
Along with the sense of being ruled from afar by politicians we didn’t vote for, I accept that Brexit perhaps highlighted a fault line and disparity in thinking between Scotland and England, since “Scotland voted to remain”, and “England voted to leave”.
This, surely, is a massive over-simplification. England is not a single entity, neither is Scotland. England, like Scotland, is a collection of diverse peoples with diverse views. From the independently-minded Cornwall, through the Midlands, Yorkshire and the North-East, I would wager that large chunks of England feel disenchanted with the ruling Conservatives and feel that the majority opinion on various matters doesn’t sit well with them.
This is the challenge of living in a democracy, and as a Union. It’s much like being part of a family. We don’t always get our own way. Often the louder voices shout us down, and we feel marginalised. I daresay many would say they didn’t vote for Boris Johnson, but—as a United Kingdom—we did. Being part of the Union is being part of the “we” and taking collective responsibility.
It’s not perfect, but that’s life.
Over thirteen million English people voted to remain in the EU, but over fifteen million voted to leave. And England’s population being approximately ten times the size of Scotland’s, the big brother’s overall view held sway.
Is this galling for Scots? Perhaps. Certainly for the Scots who didn’t get their way. Presumably the one million Scots who also voted to leave aren’t feeling the same sense of grievance.
What the Brexit result highlighted for me personally was how inadequate an instrument a binding referendum of this nature is. Your average Joe in the street, me included, is woefully incapable of making a fully-informed decision of such magnitude. It’s why we elect politicians, who—we hope—are more adequately informed about the ramifications of such decisions, or at least have advisers who are.
But back to Scottish Independence. How would we survive as a small nation?
Right now, we do have a voice in the UK Parliament. We do also have a devolved Government that can take lots of decisions in the interests of the local population, as they see fit. But…Scotland is not a single entity, with one viewpoint. Given a future independent Scotland ruled (say) from Edinburgh, how long before the Highlands and Islands complain that they’re being ignored by the ruling classes who are out of touch with their needs and desires? How long before Glasgow and the West, with its very different mindset, revolts against Edinburgh? Where does it end?
If Scotland secedes from the Union, and joins the EU (as I understand it, not even a guaranteed outcome), would we not have discarded a centuries-old alliance with nations that we have a lot in common with (e.g. language, culture (with variations), shared history), and within which we do have a significant voice (no matter how it feels at times) in favour of a relationship with neighbours with whom we have very little shared history, very little in common, and as a brand new member probably dependent on financial handouts, very little influence and voice?
It makes no sense to me. Perhaps someone can explain to me how becoming independent will ever be worth the immense logistical and financial pain of separating two countries that have been joined at the hip for three hundred years.
Meantime, I remain a committed citizen of an imperfect United Kingdom, and a loyal subject of our new King, knowing that if I got the chance to personally select every member of all our Parliaments, and for that matter, the Royal Family, they would all still be imperfect, because humans are involved.
2 thoughts on “State of the Union”
Good, well thought out post. Would love to discuss – maybe one day. As a Scottish nationalist and ‘intellectual republican’, I disagree but respect your views entirely. For thought, if there were a referendum in Eire on re-joining the UK and reinstating the monarchy do you think there would be many takers?
Hi Graeme, would love to discuss and hear your views on this. Re an Eire referendum – no, I don’t think so, although I don’t know for sure – I can’t pretend to have any real handle on the thinking of S Irish people. But I doubt it. I do think that the Irish situation in 1921 was a little different to Scotland’s today, though. But it’s an interesting thought, especially since both scenarios (Ireland reintegrating into the UK, Scotland leaving and becoming independent) would both require a significant amount of logistical pain and enormous expense, so I would argue that to consider either would require that the current situation be grave enough to warrant the upheaval. I can’t really speak to the Irish situation but I don’t see that being the case. My opinion (as you can tell!) is that it’s not warranted for Scotland, and we don’t have much to gain by going through it… but I look forward to chatting properly sometime!