The Monarchy and The Union: A Symbiotic Relationship?

Queen Elizabeth sadly passed away last Thursday at Balmoral. Because she died in Scotland, her body will be taken today to rest in St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, before being transported in London to lie in state at Westminster Hall, after which her funeral will take place next Monday. This choreography is a reminder that the British crown is a union of what once were two separate crowns of Scotland and England – and a union that did not occur until after the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1603.

Almost inevitably, the conclusion of Elizabeth’s 70-year long reign has seen questions raised about the long-term future of the monarchy. In particular, it is being asked whether her absence from the throne might result in a further weakening of public support in Scotland for a Union that, as became apparent during the 2014 referendum campaign, the late Queen wanted to preserve.

There is little doubt that, although still more popular than switching to a republic, the monarchy enjoys less popular support than it does south of the border.

Comparing Scottish and British Attitudes

During the last year or so, a couple of polling companies have asked the same question at more or less the same time of separate samples in Scotland and across Britain as a whole.

Last spring Focaldata asked a question for the British Future think tank that addressed directly what should happen to the monarchy on the death of Queen Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth II has now reigned as monarch for 70 years. When her reign comes to an end, which of the following comes closest to your view of the monarchy?  

We should keep the monarchy for the foreseeable future

The end of the queen’s reign would be the right time to move on and become a republic

The pattern of response for both Scotland in particular and Britain as a whole is shown on the left-hand side of the table below. We can see that, with 45% support, the monarchy emerged as more popular than having a republic, (36%), but also as less popular – by as much as 13 points – compared with Britain as a whole.

It might be objected that, at 636, the Scottish sample in the British Future poll was rather on the small side. Perhaps, as a result, there is a risk that it might have overestimated any difference between Scottish and British attitudes. However, the figures for Scotland are exactly in line with those in a poll conducted by Opinium a year earlier. This poll asked:

Do you think Britain should continue to have a monarchy in the future, or should Britain become a republic?

As the right-hand side of the table above shows, in this poll also 45% of respondents in Scotland said there should still be a monarchy, while 36% backed a republic.  In this instance, when the same question was asked on a contemporaneous Britain-wide Opinium poll, the level of support for the monarchy was a little less than in the Focaldata British sample. Consequently, at ten points the difference between Scotland and Britain was less than in Focaldata’s polling, but only slightly so.

There can be little doubt that Scotland is rather less keen than Britain as a whole on retaining the monarchy – though even across Britain as a whole these two polling exercises suggest that there is only a relatively modest majority in favour of the monarchy – a  finding that is consistent with the pattern of response to a question on the importance of having a monarchy asked on NatCen’s latest British Social Attitudes survey.

What if Scotland becomes Independent?

The policy of the SNP is, of course, that an independent Scotland should retain the British monarchy – a stance that implies  the future of the monarchy in Scotland would not depend on the future of the Union.  Public opinion on what should happen in the event of independence is broadly supportive of this stance, though the pattern of answers does depend somewhat on the precise wording of the question asked.

In June last year, Panelbase asked the following question for The Sunday Times. It read:

If Scotland becomes independent would you prefer the monarch to remain head of state in Scotland or would you rather Scotland had an elected head of state?

Just under half (47%) said that they would prefer to keep the monarchy, just over a third (35%) indicated that they would prefer an elected Head of State. The figures are, of course, very similar to those recorded in the Focaldata and Opinium surveys, suggesting that the level of public support for the monarchy is not contingent on Scotland’s constitutional status.

However, the pattern of response to another question might be thought to cast some doubt on this claim. For the Opinium poll of last year to which we have already referred also asked the following question:

If Scotland did become an independent country, do you think

Scotland should continue as a monarchy, with the British monarch as head of state

Scotland should become a republic with an elected head of state

In this instance, only 39% said that Scotland should continue as a monarchy while just as many (39%) said it should become a republic. At the same time 22% indicated they did not know or were not sure.

Note, however, that the question referred to the British monarchy (emphasis added). This could well have made a difference in a country where a substantial minority do not feel British. There is certainly a link between identity and support for the monarchy. In Focaldata’s poll, only 23% of those who say they are Scottish and not British backed retaining the monarchy, while 56% said that Britain should become a republic. In contrast, nearly three-quarters (73%) of those who said they were at least as British as they were Scottish if not more so wanted to retain the monarchy, while only one in eight (13%) preferred a republic.

In any event, continuation of the monarchy in an independent Scotland emerged as a more popular proposition in a Savanta ComRes/Scotsman poll undertaken in April of last year. This asked the following:

If Scotland were an independent country, to what extent do you support or oppose each of the following?

Keeping the Queen (or monarch) as Scotland’s head of state

In this instance, as many as a half (50%), said they supported keeping the Queen or monarch, while less than a quarter (22%) were opposed. One in five (20%) said they neither supported nor opposed the proposition. The more favourable balance of opinion for the monarchy might perhaps be accounted for by the explicit reference in the question to the Queen (thereby perhaps ensuring that the answers given reflected her personal popularity) and/or by the fact that the alternative to a monarchy was not specified.

All in all, the evidence suggests that retaining the monarchy would be a relatively popular if far from consensual outcome in the event of independence – at least so long as the post-Elizabethan monarchy retains the crown’s current level of popularity and if it were to emphasise its Scottish roots rather than its British connections. But what might be the implications if these conditions do not hold? In particular, what might happen to popular support for the Union if the monarchy were to become less popular?

The Link between Attitudes to the Monarchy and the Union

There is undoubtedly a link between attitudes towards Scotland’s constitutional status and attitudes towards the monarchy.  In the case of the Opinium poll question we introduced at Table 1, two-thirds (67%) of those who would currently vote to remain in the UK said the monarchy should be retained, while just under one in five (19%) backed a republic. In sharp contrast, a half (50%) of those who currently support independence wanted to switch to a republic, while only around three in ten (29%) preferred a monarchy.

Similarly, as many as 72% of those who currently back the Union told Panelbase that an independent Scotland should keep the crown, while only 14% wanted an elected Head of State. Among those backing Yes, only 26% wanted a monarchy while 60% wanted a republic. In short, support for the monarchy in Scotland is strongly associated with a wish to remain part of the Union – and it is this link that is probably a major explanation of the monarchy’s lower overall level of popularity north of the border.

However, that still leaves the question of the causal connection between the two. The polling evidence does not prove that attitudes to the Union are influenced by attitudes to the monarchy – rather than vice-versa. It certainly makes sense that someone who does not feel British, is convinced that Scotland would be economically better off as an independent country and would have more control over its own affairs should have doubts about retaining the monarchical connection.

But would someone who feels at least somewhat British, has severe doubts about the economics of independence, and is content with being outside the EU be likely to change their mind about retaining the Union because they have come to the conclusion that King Charles and/or his successors are not as good a monarch as the late Queen Elizabeth? It does not seem very likely.


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About the author

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, Senior Research Fellow at ScotCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', and Chief Commentator on the What Scotland Thinks website.