Would an independent Scotland under the British monarchy have a Governor General?

Today’s (26th June) edition of The Independent, in its coverage of yesterday’s Edinburgh launch of the Yes UK campaign, has a list of the contrasting positions of the Yes Scotland and Yes UK campaigns on five topics. They are: Defence; Currency; Europe; Queen; and Diplomacy.

The surprise comes under the Indie’s account of the two positions on  ‘Queen’.

A continuing UK would obviously simply carry on as before in terms of the roles and functions of the British monarchy in Scotland.

The position of an independent Scotland, however, is given as: ‘Keep the monarchy but establish a Scottish consulate in London and a Governor General in Scotland’.

We have not previously heard of this one and therefore have no idea where the Indie got it – but this is a seriously informed paper so one has to assume it is factually correct.

This is interesting in a variety of ways.

It suggests Commonwealth membership, which, even if undiscussed is largely uncontroversial.

But the concept, the role and the ring of ‘Governor General’ is enduringly colonial even if legislative changes in the serially independent former British dominions have limited the authority of the post.

A Governor General has vice-regal status and is an appointment of the British monarch under advice from the government of the country in question.

While the post is largely ceremonial, the Governor General may exercise the reserve powers of the monarch according to their own constitutional authority.

Normally, the Governor General acts in accordance with constitutional convention and on the advice of the national Prime Minister. However, this is tradition rather than law.

There have been some spectacular departures from this convention, as in in 1975, when, in the midst of an internal political crisis, the Governor General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, sacked the Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam and replaced him with Malcolm Fraser, leader of the opposition.

In principle, the Crown could overrule a Governor General but this has not happened in modern times and it did not happen in the Australian political and constitutional crisis of 1975.

The Speaker of the Australia Parliament then formally requested the Queen to reinstate Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister. The reply from the Queen’s Private Secretary, declined to intervene, noting that: ‘the Australian Constitution firmly places the prerogative powers of the Crown in the hands of the Governor-General as the representative of the Queen of Australia’.

Were Scotland to become independent and were it to choose to have a Governor General – whose necessity we would question – we suggest that the drawing up of the constitution for an independent Scotland pays close protective attention to the events of 1975 in Australia.

There is something about the voluntary adoption of a Governor General – if the Independent is correct that this is what is planned -  which is a million miles away from the spiritual, philosophical and political notion of independence the average punter is being asked to buy in to.

How it will play with the electorate of both camps remains to be seen.

It may not materially affect the core nationalist vote which appears to be willing to take independence at any price.

It may though affect the floating voter in adding to the weight of what is perceived as expensive and unnecessary change which would follow independence.

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14 Responses to Would an independent Scotland under the British monarchy have a Governor General?

  1. A governor-general….and why would we need one any more than say a separate england with whom we would have a shared monarch?

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      • The position of Governor General relates to the proximity of the monarch, not to the political entity that is the UK. It is an anachronism of the days of Empire, where areas such as Australia, New Zealand or even Canada were too far away for the monarch to be able to directly exercise their duties as Head of State, so a proxy is needed.

        Given that the Royal Family spend a fair amount of time in Scotland anyway, I wouldn’t have thought there was any call for a GG and I think the Independent hasn’t really thought this one through (probably still relying on “Scotch on the Rocks” as a constitutional guideline).

        Personally, I would suggest having a separate monarch as Head of State in the first instance (the Princess Royal would seem a good choice) then a later referendum after independence to see if Scotland should become a republic or not. It isn’t the most pressing question though.

        Whatever the eventual outcome, I would very much doubt that the monarchy would be allowed even an iota of the constitutional power in an independent Scotland that they have under the current UK constitution (small though that is).

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  2. The answer is to consider that Buck House, Windsor and the Sandringham pile are all no more than holiday houses, that Royal Deeside is her native habitat, and so it’s England that’ll be getting the Governor General. It’s just a question of who to send down there.

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  3. Were Scotland to separate, you would presumably need someone to discharge the duties of head of state were the Queen not available. As the Queen’s diary wouldn’t likely change much in the event of Scotland leaving the Union, she wouldn’t be available to receive Scottish-accredited diplomats, bestow Scottish honours, etc. Governors-General aren’t “2nd XV” jobs – they are actually the ones that exercise the power as head of state. Why would you assume that Scotland would be any different to any another Commonwealth Realm? Therefore you would need a governor-general, even if you didn’t call it that. Were I Alex Salmond I’d have fought hard to establish a Scottish honours system (Order of St Andrew?) and a Scottish governor-general by now already.

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  4. A few clarifications:

    (1) The SNP’s draft constitution for an independent Scotland published in 2002 does not provide for a Governor-General, instead the Presiding Officer of Parliament would deputise for the ceremonial and constitutional duties of the Head of State when the Queen is absent from Scotland.

    (2) While the Article is correct in its treatment of the office of Governor-General under the Australian Constitution, it does not reflect the fact that the powers and functions of office of Governor-General in the more recent Constitutions of Commonwealth nations are much more tightly defined, removing scope for such confusion. Look up the Constitutions of St Lucia or Jamaica for typical examples.

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