It must have seemed such a good idea at the time and a jolly simple one too: put Prince William and Kate Middleton on Queen Victoria’s storied royal train and send them off on a tour of the U.K.
Officially, this week’s three-day, whirlwind tour of the country was to thank frontline staff for their work during the pandemic. It was also about getting the country’s most popular young royals on TV screens and newspaper pages in a Christmas season that promises to be unusually devoid of royal photo-ops, given the cancellation of the royal Christmas gathering at Sandringham.
The 1,250-mile, three-day tour—which began on Sunday and ended on Tuesday—took in Edinburgh, Berwick-upon-Tweed, West Yorkshire, Manchester, Cardiff, Bath, and Reading.
Enter, stage north, to ruin the best laid of royal spinner’s plans, the premier of the devolved nation of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, a fierce nationalist, whose all-consuming focus is on securing Scotland a new independence referendum after the one in 2014 was greeted with a resounding “No.”
Sturgeon has been a hawk throughout the pandemic. One of the measures the Scottish government introduced was to make crossing the Scottish border illegal except with a reasonable excuse, or for work purposes.
The royals presented their tour as a working trip, permitted under the work purposes exemption.
However, in Scotland, where the royals are generally less popular than they are in England, especially within the nationalist community, critics on social media were quick to characterize the trip as an irresponsible jaunt. Even if it didn’t actually spread COVID-19, these critics said, it certainly militated against the clear and cautious COVID messaging that has characterized Scotland’s response to the pandemic.
The accusations entered the mainstream with even newspapers such as The Scotsman, which backed a “no” vote in the referendum, describing the trip as an opportunity to vent the “familiar grievances” of “one rule for them and another for the rest of us” and saying the trip showed the royals had “not yet grasped the public mood, at least in Scotland.”
No sooner had the Earl and Countess of Strathearn (as William and Kate are titled while carrying out official engagements in Scotland) arrived at Edinburgh’s Waverley station, than Sturgeon smoothly hijacked the royal train.
Asked about the allegations they were undermining Scotland’s COVID response, she replied: “The Scottish Government was advised about the intention to visit, and we made sure that the Royal household were aware, as you would expect, of the restrictions in place in Scotland so that could inform both the decision and the planning of the visit. Any more questions on that should be directed to the Royal household.”
“Within certain circles there’s opposition in principle to the monarchy along with other hereditary privileges.”
Underpinning the decidedly lukewarm reception lie hundreds of years of complicated and often antagonistic history between England and Scotland, although Professor Christopher Whatley of the University of Dundee, a well-known and widely published Scottish historian and author of the 2014 book, The Scots and the Union: Then and Now, told The Daily Beast that Sturgeon has to walk a delicate path with regard to the monarchy.
Official SNP policy is that an independent Scotland would retain the queen as head of state because the 1603 Union of Crowns predates the 1707 Union of Parliaments, the act that independence would undo.
But there is undoubtedly a significant strain of Republicanism in the nationalist community. However, there are also many supporters of independence who like the monarchy, he said, and the nationalists cannot afford to alienate them.
“Her raison d’être as an SNP [Scottish Nationalist Party] politician is to secure Scottish independence,” Whatley said. The royal visit, although “largely symbolic” is, he noted, “unhelpful to her cause.”
Whatley added: “Within certain circles there’s opposition in principle to the monarchy along with other hereditary privileges.”
William and Kate also attracted criticism in Wales, which, although devolved from the U.K. in a similar way to Scotland, does not have the same level of popular demand for independence. Again, it was for the possibility of sowing of confusion around national COVID messaging that they were attacked.
Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething told the BBC: “I’d rather that no one was having unnecessary visits and people always have divisive views about the monarchy, but their visit isn’t an excuse for people to say that they are confused about what they are being asked to do.”
Whatley suggests such criticism could be an important red flag for unionists, saying: “In Wales there’s growing support for Welsh independence, which would explain the current coolness towards the royal visit. I think that Welsh politicians are learning from the Scottish example.”
Some of the skepticism about royal initiatives in Scotland, and from the Scottish Nationalist Party (of which Sturgeon is the leader) in particular, stems from the moment during the final stages of the 2014 referendum campaign when the queen controversially told well-wishers that she hoped Scots would “think very carefully about the future.”
Dr Malcolm Petrie, a history lecturer at the University of St Andrews in Scotland told The Daily Beast: “That was widely interpreted as being supportive of a vote against Scottish independence.”
He said that even though it was hard to precisely gauge the impact of the queen’s comment, “pro-independence politicians and campaigners are probably wary of further royal interventions on those understandable grounds.”
Of course, Sturgeon’s implied criticism was based specifically on the coronavirus threat, and Alvin Jackson, the Sir Richard Lodge Professor of History, at the University of Edinburgh told The Daily Beast that was understandable given the “backdrop of COVID.”
He said, “There have been several well-publicized cases in Scotland and the U.K. generally of leading figures who have been seen as (at the very least) pushing against the spirit of these rules over the months of the pandemic…there is clearly concern that the royal visit may be seen as unhelpful in terms of the enforcement of the COVID rules.”
Dr. Sean Lang, a playwright and senior lecturer in history at England’s Anglia Ruskin University who specializes in the history of the British Empire and has written extensively on the relationship between England and Scotland, said: “It’s no secret that Scottish nationalists tend to be republican; Scottish nationalism took a leftward slant back in Mrs Thatcher’s day, and nationalists tend to associate the monarchy with England, despite the importance the royals attach to their presence in Scotland.
“Among Scots as a whole, there is much more affection, especially for the queen,” Dr. Lang added. “It is very hard to say how Charles will be accepted as and when he becomes king, though I don't think Scotland is wildly different from England or Wales in this respect. His reign cannot be that long, of course, and William does have a much more positive public image.
“But if there is a move for independence, and that seems increasingly likely, it will be much more because of Brexit and the impact of the pandemic than because of any feelings one way or the other about the monarchy.”
Nonetheless, given the delicate balancing acts taking place between various competing interests, and the added layer of the coronavirus, the palace’s communications office might, perhaps, next time pause to consider whether it is really such a good idea to throw two royals, their staff and a train into a devolved nation, especially one where polling shows that confidence in the nationalist leader’s handling of the pandemic is driving the cause of independence to record polling numbers.
Kensington Palace did not respond to emails seeking comment.