“More than 20 years ago, I opposed devolution,” writes Sir John Major in today’s Times. “I did so not because I thought Scotland could not govern itself. Plainly it can. I did so because I believed devolution would be a high road to separation. So it has proved. The vote next week is about far more than the future of Scotland. It is about the future of every part of the United Kingdom.”
And he goes on to talk about Labour’s “deadly legacy”, decrying their meddling with the political settlement and the constitutional dog’s breakfast bequeathed. So, if Scotland votes next week to secede from the United Kingdom (which looks possible, if not likely), it will be Tony Blair’s fault through New Labour’s ignorance and delinquency.
Except that the separatist cause was given a significant boost in 1996 by the Conservatives, for it was John Major, egged on by Michael Forsyth, who suddenly announced apropos of nothing that the Stone of Destiny (aka the Stone of Scone; the Coronation Stone; Jacob’s Pillow/Pillar) should be wrenched from the Throne of the United Kingdom and returned to Scotland. In his Commons Statement, Mr Major explained:
“The Stone of Destiny is the most ancient symbol of Scottish kingship. It was used in the coronation of Scottish Kings until the end of the 13th century. Exactly 700 years ago, in 1296, King Edward I brought it from Scotland and housed it in Westminster abbey. The stone remains the property of the Crown. I wish to inform the House that, on the advice of Her Majesty’s Ministers, the Queen has agreed that the stone should be returned to Scotland. The stone will, of course, be taken to Westminster abbey to play its traditional role in the coronation ceremonies of future sovereigns of the United Kingdom.
“The Stone of Destiny holds a special place in the hearts of Scots. On this the 700th anniversary of its removal from Scotland, it is appropriate to return it to its historic homeland…”
In his response, Leader of the Opposition Tony Blair observed observed that the Stone “is part of Scottish nationhood”. David Steel MP added that “it is the settled view of the majority of people in Scotland that they want not just the symbol, but the substance – the substance of the return of democratic control over our internal affairs in Scotland”. But it was Margaret Ewing MP who hit the legendary nail squarely on the head:
“..the Stone of Destiny is not the symbol of kingship but the symbol of the sovereignty of the people of Scotland, which is enunciated through the declaration of Arbroath. Like others, I argue that, while we welcome the return of this symbol of power, we want the realities of power in Scotland. It may have taken this Parliament some 668 years since the treaty of Northampton to return stolen goods to Scotland, but in actuality the people of Scotland will return to themselves the power of having their own sovereign Parliament very soon.”
It was a vacuous political gesture draped in the Royal Command, but it was clearly expressed that the Queen was acting “on the advice of (Her) Ministers”. What they dismissed as mere symbolism was, for many, a portent of nationalist power, for legend decreed that the return of the Stone to Scotland would herald independence from the yoke of English oppression and tyranny (ie Edward II and Margaret Thatcher).
Stuff and nonsense, you say: mythical bluster; absolutely barking. Well, up to a point, maybe. But what secular-minded politicians tend to ignore are the spiritual, religious and theological foundations of the British Constitution, often treating them as anachronistic expressions of bigotry or of belonging to an age of unreason.
The Stone of Scone had resided in Westminster Abbey for 700 years, when Edward I gifted it to the shrine of Edward the Confessor. But the Prime Minister had not even bothered to consult the Dean and Chapter over his intentions: it was as though the Stone were nothing more than an historic artefact to be packed away and carted around like an Elgin Marble. The Dean, the Very Rev’d Michael Mayne, strained to explain to Mr Major that the Stone and Coronation Chair were a single integrity – the reliquary with the relic in it. And he asked what it said about the modern political view of monarchy that the Stone was to be housed not in a Scottish church, on consecrated ground, but in a castle museum; a secular space. But Mr Major had not even thought about this.
And so the Coronation Chair is empty of the historic throne upon which the kings and queens of Ireland, Scotland, England and the United Kingdom have long been crowned. Through political ignorance and religious indifference; through scheming subterfuge and sophistry, sovereignty has been removed; national independence compromised; the Protestant Faith diminished. As Margaret Thatcher observed: “If you try to take the fruits of Christianity without its roots, the fruits will wither.”
The Royal Warrant for the Stone’s removal specifies that it should be returned for “all future Sovereigns of the United Kingdom… at their Coronation”. It is a sacred ceremony of religious anointing. But the next Sovereign may not reign over a United Kingdom – at least one that includes Scotland. We are assured that the Union of Crowns will continue – and, yes, it preceded the Union of Parliaments by a century. But it will be a shadow of its former religio-political significance. And for that we can blame, successively, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major (and Michael Forsyth).
Or, if it helps, you can blame Margaret Thatcher for delivering her ‘Sermon on the Mound‘.