MAY is the month, it seems, when the English try to change our minds.

This week it is William, the Earl of Strathearn, and his wife Kate, touring the country in a bid to “shore up” the Union. Despite William’s sweet words and gentle manner, he brought to mind Shakespeare’s warning – “rough winds do shake the darling buds of May” – as well as another royal who once sought to sway us.

In May 1544, Henry VIII sent an army over the border, with orders to raze and kill everything in their path. As his troops devastated border towns, setting alight Melrose, Jedburgh, and many others, their eyes were on Edinburgh. Henry left no room for doubt: “Do what ye can …to beate down and overthrowe the castle, sack Holyrood house, and as many townes and villages about Edinborough as ye may … putting man, woman and child to fyre and sworde without exception”.

A dismal failure for Henry, these events were drily dubbed “the Rough Wooing”. Their cause was the Scots changing their mind about betrothing two-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots to Henry’s son Edward, and sending her to London to be raised. You get some idea of Henry’s psyche that he believed all-out assault might persuade us to reconsider.


The present royal offensive is so pleasant, you might call it the “Smooth Wooing”. William and Kate’s itinerary allows them to revisit some of their favourite haunts, and to extol the virtues of a country that has played a pivotal part in their lives. It is a sentimental journey, in more senses than one. Addressing the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland as its Lord High Commissioner, William spoke of spending some of his happiest times here, including at St Andrews University, where he met his future wife. On his mother’s tragic death, he found solace in the surroundings of Balmoral, his grandmother’s beloved summer retreat.

I don’t doubt his sincerity. Since Victoria and Albert, the House of Windsor has had a soft spot for Scotland. Whether William knows he is being used as a Trojan horse to convey a message of unity, in the hope of tipping opinion away from breaking up Britain, there is certainly a feeling abroad that Scotland’s feathers need to be smoothed, and our mood placated.

Polls for and against independence remain stubbornly neck and neck, the margin too close as yet to call. Compared with the widespread consensus against Brexit, this is a country divided as never before. But does this latest attempt to woo us stand any chance of success? Do the powers that be at Westminster and Buckingham Palace really believe that the root of the independence movement lies in a lack of attention or praise? Is it nothing more than pique at feeling unloved and unappreciated?

Maybe for some that’s true. If all it takes to make them switch position is a shower of compliments, however, then come a referendum they might well play it safe anyway, without any outside help.


Far more probable is that, being incurably suspicious of flattery, many people will be sceptical about a charm offensive, regardless of their view of the Union. Let’s not forget that, just as nationalists were not universally anti-Brexit, unionists are not automatically royalists. Or, to put it another way, should we ever gain independence, this will not be a charter for republicans to begin beating that drum with any expectation of success. When he was First Minister, Alex Salmond made clear his admiration for the Queen. In his vision of an independent Scotland, the monarchy remained firmly in place.

Under Nicola Sturgeon, the situation is a little more nuanced. When sworn in as First Minister earlier this month, she prefixed her oath of allegiance to the Queen with a statement upholding the “sovereignty of the people”. Even so, she once described a constitutional monarchy as “a model that has many merits”. Should the day come when the Scottish-English border once again represents an international boundary rather than simply a chance to get out of the car and enjoy the view, the royals need not fear.

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It’s a safe bet – the sort even I would be willing to splurge on – that they will remain embedded here for countless years to come. Given the depth of affection many Scots have for them, it might even serve the nationalist cause to reassure monarchists that, in the event of separation, the Windsors will not be face the axe.

So much for William and Kate’s benign boost for the Union. The question is, who else, like Henry VIII’s army, will be dispatched northwards to sort us out? Since even in some Tory quarters Boris Johnson is the political equivalent of rat poison, it is unlikely we’ll be serenaded by him. Nor is the widely unpopular Michael Gove a much more appealing candidate.

You can be sure, though, that lists are already being compiled of national treasures whose influence might help keep the Union Jack aloft in these parts. It’s already said that the Queen will soon be doing her bit, but should we expect David Attenborough suddenly to be enlisted? Or Dame Judy Dench?

All that can be said for certain is that the full artillery of diplomatic warfare will be deployed, to coax Scotland to stay put. Yet whatever big guns they roll out, the mission to woo us has a fatal flaw. A suitor’s job is to make an offer, yet upholders of the Union have no prize with which to dazzle us.

Their pitch is simply to avert divorce and keep things as they are. No matter that this is a different status quo from that offered by the Better Together campaign, long before Brexit. Nor that, because of leaving Europe against our will, Scottish farmers and fishermen seriously fear for their future, and our umbilical cord to the EU has been severed.

The best deal the royals or anyone else of that persuasion can tempt us with is keeping the marriage alive. In the past, uneasy alliances were cemented by treaties of Perpetual Peace. But as kings and queens down the ages could tell us, such pledges usually end with someone losing their head.

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