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May 10, 2011

The Royal Wedding and Scottish Nationalism: Brendan Simms on why the Royal Wedding was lost as an opportunity to reinforce the union

Posted by Brendan Simms

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge must reach out to the Scots before it is too late to save the Union, argues Brendan Simms - Professor in the History of International Relations, University of Cambridge.

The past ten days saw two events of great significance for the British constitution. I am not referring to the referendum decision to stick to the "first past the post" electoral system, important though this was. I mean rather the remarkable wedding ceremony of Prince William and Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey, Friday before last, and the landslide victory of the Scottish National Party at the polls, last Thursday. These two events are connected in an intangible but meaningful way.

It all went well in the end. The bride looked beautiful in her dress, the Middleton family comported itself with dignity under unaccustomed pressure, Prince William managed to include the various and fissiparious elements of his two families, there were no terrorist attacks or even protests, and even the weather - which had threatened to turn in the late morning - held up. Most of the country bathed in a glow of contentment.

There were, to be sure, a few off notes. The Middleton frère lingered a little affectedly over his reading, perhaps, but then he might have been so instructed in order to conquer the Abbey's treacherous echo, or he may just have been trying to control his nerves. Quite a few of the congregation had obviously not been to church for some time, or ever, and watching them grappling with the hymns, put one in mind of John Redwood's televised mumble through the Welsh anthem more than a decade ago.

The whole event has been criticised, and not altogether unfairly, as demonstratively Tory. Thanks to the absence of Messieurs Blair and Brown there were very few Labour figures or types in evidence. Some speculate that this is calculated revenge for scrapping the Royal Yacht, banning fox-hunting, and other real or imagined slights. Others point out that, technically, the two Conservative Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, were invited in their capacity of Knights of the Garter, which their two successors are not. Others still claim that as a serving officer, Prince William was punishing the former Labour government for its failure to provide the armed forces with the necessary equipment. Whatever the reason, it was an unfortunate omission, which cannot be justified by arguing that the wedding was a private affair: first, because the monarchy is an institution of state, and secondly, because the public purpose paid for an expensive RAF fly-past.

There was another, and much more important, problem, however. This Royal Wedding was a very English event; saying this is not at all incompatible with also seeing it as a global spectacle. The choice of Jerusalem with its "England's mountains green" said it all. William gestured towards Ireland, it is true, by donning the uniform of the Irish Guards, the Welsh provided the music outside the Abbey, and some of the hymns could be described as Anglo-Welsh. As far as one could see, though, the only explicit nods to Scotland were the barely visible thistles on Kate's dress and the wedding cake. The overall effect was a cross between the last night at the proms, and one of those free CDs that one occasionally receives with the Sunday Telegraph.

This matters, because the monarchy has historically been a crucial integrating factor within the British Isles. There were dynastic bonds linking England to Scotland and Ireland, well before the parliamentary unions of 1707 and 1801. Traditionally, the monarchy has been very good at deepening these connections: think of Queen Victoria and the Balmoralisation of the Royal Family in the nineteenth century.

All those invented traditions may have been bad history, but they made for excellent politics. The exercise was never successful in Ireland, for good reasons, though Victoria herself was given a rousing welcome. Scotland, on the other hand, has been a virtual second home for the monarchy for more than a hundred and fifty years. In the past few decades, however, the relationship has cooled somewhat. The generally lower level of Scottish interest in the Royal Wedding - noted in the local press, but interestingly not in the Westminster media - reflects this. One struggled to identify any prominent Scottish figures, aristocrats aside, in the Congregation. It is against this background that the absence of Gordon Brown was most unfortunate, and it is to be feared that this will come to be viewed north of the border as a national affront.

In small but important ways, these apparent slights will make Alex Salmond's task easier. He has already promised a vote on Scottish independence within five years. Separation would be bad for Scotland financially, and probably in other ways as well, but it would also be a disaster for England. It would weaken the rump state on the international stage and disentangling the military structures and base facilities would be extremely difficult and damaging to both sides.

At the moment, there is no danger of this happening soon: polls suggest that nearly two-thirds of Scots oppose independence. The real risk is that the English, through neglect, insensitivity or even an understandable irritation over "West Lothian" injustices nudge the Scots towards a decision they will regret.

Remarkable Prime Minister though she was, Margaret Thatcher certainly alienated the Scots by her tone as much as her policies. It is vital that a more sustained effort be made now to persuade Scotland of the benefits of Union: strategic, economic, political and last not least, culturally. Reconnecting the Royal Family north of the border should be part of that process.

The present monarch has a well-known affection for Scotland. William and Kate have done an excellent job of reconciling Middle England with the monarchy. They already have much of the world on their side. Now they must reach out to the Scots before it is too late.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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"there were no terrorist attacks or even protests"

In fact there were many protestors. They were either moved out of sight of the main proceedings or arrested and taken away.

Posted by: Carl at June 5, 2011 07:51 AM
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