When Scots went to the polls to vote for independence from the United Kingdom in September 2014, the role of the Queen came under scrutiny.
At the time, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, pledged that if voters backed exiting from the 300-plus year Union, Elizabeth II would remain “Queen of Scots.”
Polling at the time suggested Salmond accurately gauged the popular mood on the Queen – 52% wanted to keep her. The question was moot, however, as Salmond famously miscalculated Scotland’s mood on independence, which was voted down 55% to 45%.
Of the many lessons of IndyRef 2014 in Scotland, one solid takeaway was that the Queen was not directly part of the problem.
In Northern Ireland, however, during much of her reign the opposite was true.
The 30 bloody years of violence known as “The Troubles” pitted UK unionists against Irish nationalists, with the British Crown emblematic of much that divided the province.
Unionists are loyal to the Crown and the traditional British values they believe it enshrines. For Irish nationalists, it is the symbol of the British forces who subjugated their ancestors and annexed their land.
Charles’ favorite great-uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy to India, was murdered by the Irish Republicans along with several of his grandchildren. The message to the monarch was unmistakable: Her bloodline were legitimate targets.
Her public reply came many years later, on a 2012 visit to Northern Ireland that followed the relative peace brought by the Good Friday Agreement, when she shook the hand of one of the republicans most associated with the groups behind the violence of the past, Martin McGuinness.
That government officials recommended she take McGuinness’s hand speaks to her power on all things Union. She is not the Union, but a symbol of it. McGuinness’s Irish nationalist republicans had reluctantly ended their “armed struggle” and remain, for now, inside the Union.
So, to think Queen Elizabeth has little relevance to today’s Union would be to misread her reign.
She was a unifying force, wielding her soft power delicately and discreetly with the singular aim of keeping together the Union and the vestiges of the Empire, the Commonwealth.
Soft but real unifying power
The Queen’s ability to understand and navigate the complexities of Edinburgh’s relationship with London in a way that English politicians – particularly Conservatives – rarely grasp, and to overcome her own personal suffering at the hands of Irish nationalists, spoke volumes of her dedication to unity.
It is no coincidence that her late husband, Prince Philip, was titled the Duke of Edinburgh, or that her son, Charles, was invested as Prince of Wales within the walls of Caernarfon Castle in Wales, or that her grandson, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, is also titled the Earl of Strathearn in Scotland. As heir to the throne, William now inherits the title of Duke of Rothesay in Scotland formerly held by his father.
Nor is it coincidence that the Queen spent many months of the year at Balmoral Castle in Scotland – which wasn’t just one of her favorite residences but a place and culture in which she felt at home – enjoying the wild rugged moorlands that few English politicians ever sample. Indeed, it was at Balmoral that she had her final public engagements – accepting the resignation of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and inviting his successor, Liz Truss, to form a new government. Two days later, the Queen’s close family gathered there as the news of her death was shared with Britons and the world.
Elizabeth styled herself as a figure sympathetic to the whole United Kingdom. Her unifying power in this regard was soft, but real.
The Queen never professed to feeling more English than Scottish, or to being any less a figure for the Northern Irish than the Welsh.
Old animosities to the Crown, be it Irish, Scottish or Welsh, predated her reign by more than a generation. For many people in all parts of the UK, the Queen embodied consistency, custom and continuity; her son is likely to do the same.
Charles, who has sparked a few controversies over the years, has – like his mother – been inculcated with a pan-Union CV. He followed in his father’s footsteps by going to boarding school In Scotland, he spent time in Wales before his investiture and spoke Welsh during the ceremony in Caernarfon Castle. While there have been moments of general contention over his marriage to the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and affair with his current wife Camilla, now the Queen Consort, he has never consistently antagonized one part of the Union more than another.
However, Charles is perceived by some as having been too outspoken on issues that diverge from traditional orthodoxy. His comments over the decades on the ugliness of some modern buildings and, more specifically, his public views on the dangers of climate change – expressed long before the issue hit mainstream discourse – have left him with a reputation for being an outlier.
According to Professor Thom Brooks, dean and chair in law and government at the UK’s prestigious Durham University, Charles as King – as he automatically became on the Queen’s death – could cause Northern Irish unionists to question their ties to the UK. “Their view of what being British means will weaken,” he said.
Brooks describes the transition from the Queen to her son as “a huge historic moment,” given the quality and length of Elizabeth II’s reign.
Taken alone, the transition, which was constitutional and immediate, might not seem particularly consequential.
But in an environment where the majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, and when unionists’ traditional allies, the Conservatives, have let them down with a Brexit deal that creates new customs barriers between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, the changing relationship across the Irish Sea coupled with a less appealing monarch could increase the pace of drift toward a United Ireland.
Indeed, not long after Prince Philip’s death in 2021 a poll of Northern Irish Protestants, traditionally strongly unionist, showed for the first time the majority thought of themselves as Northern Irish, not British. It signifies a subtle psychological shift, softening emotional ties to mainland UK.
According to Brooks, from a unionist perspective looking at mainland UK, the relationship is eroding. “If that’s your ally and that’s as good as it gets,” he said, some unionists may revise their judgment upwards on the value of a united Ireland.
In this regard, King Charles III may have a slight loosening impact on the Union. But while Brooks warned that the Queen’s passing would boost calls for an end to the monarchy – “any change at the top will be used by those looking to change results,” he said – it is extremely unlikely such sentiment will have an immediate effect on the Union.
In Scotland, despite the long-running independence quest, a change of monarch is unlikely to impact Scots’ political desires in a measurable way, according to Edinburgh-based pollster Mark Diffley, an adviser to the SNP.
He said it would be “politically unwise” to “radically change the 2014 [independence referendum] prospectus.”
While he readily admits “the royal family is not as popular in Scotland as it is in England,” Diffley says it is not an issue the SNP exploits. It’s worth remembering, Diffley adds, that the “types of voters the SNP and YES campaign are wooing to independence are people who voted to remain in the EU, are middle-class, who are not republican, change-the-monarchy types.”
Following the SNP’s success in the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has said she wants another independence referendum to be held in October next year. Although former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed to oppose such a vote, the UK-wide results of local elections the same day in 2021 cemented an image of a politically fractured nation. Right-wing Tories were victorious over the left-wing Labour in England, while Labour won in Wales and the SNP polled better than both combined in Scotland.
Sturgeon has now asked the UK’s Supreme Court to rule on whether a second referendum can be called without Westminster’s say-so – in what could become a major headache for Downing Street in the coming months.
In short, it’s likely that Johnson’s newly anointed successor, Truss, will have a greater bearing on the disintegration of the UK than whoever wears the head of state’s crown.