Does the Queen read the Sunday Times?

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FOLK must have choked on their porridge when they read the screaming banner headline on the front page of the Sunday Times (May 29).  It announced: “Queen’s fear of UK break-up”.

The article, by Isabel Oakenshott and Jason Allardyce, informed Sunday Times readers that: “the Queen has signalled her concern at the prospect of the break up of the United Kingdom in a private meeting with David Cameron.” The piece went on: “Although the Queen has been careful not to express a personal opinion, she is said to be anxious to be informed about issues, including the prospect that she could become the last Queen of the United Kingdom since the union of Scotland and England in 1707.”

The article went on: “It is understood that palace officials asked Downing Street to bring a constitutional expert to advise on the process of staging a referendum on Scottish independence and the dismantling of the union.”

However, a close inspection of the article reveals that it is what, in the trade, is known as a “puff”. In other words a whisker of a story blown out of all proportion to what the headline implies.

Yes, the Queen met David Cameron. She meets whoever is prime minister for a weekly audience to cover recent events.  Doubtless the subject of the SNP’s crushing victory on My 5 has come up. But unless Her Majesty phoned the Sunday Times to leak these discussions, it is highly improbable the Sunday Times journalists are privy to what was said – if anything.

Nor is it likely that the Prime minister leaked a private conversation with the monarch exclusively to messers Oakenshott and Allardyce. As for giving constitutional advice, Queen Elizabeth has seen off 11 other prime ministers before Cameron, and could probably give him a lecture or two on how the UK works.

It is much more probable that the Sunday Times asked Cameron’s private office if the subject of the SNP victory came up at his weekly audience. They probably got the usual reply: “We don’t comment on these private conversations but you are free to assume that all major issues to do with the governance of the UK are brought up.”

Again, it is easy to imagine our intrepid Sunday Times hacks asking a follow-up question: “Has Downing Street informed the Palace about the possibility of a referendum on Scottish independence?” and getting the bland reply “Downing Street always makes advice available on constitutional questions”.  Hey presto, you’ve got a scoop!

Whatever the Queen thinks about the SNP victory – and she is reputed to get on well with Alex Salmond – it is safe to conclude the Sunday Times news desk is not privy to her thoughts. So that banner headline had more to do with the editor being desperate for something to put on the front page than a serious story with credible foundations.

The Sunday Times needs all the banner headlines it can muster. In only the 12 months to April, its UK circulation fell by a whole 10.3 per cent. That’s worse than the Observer (-8.68) or the Independent on Sunday (-8.28) though nowhere near as bad as the Sunday Herald (-30.19) or Scotland on Sunday (-12.26). Sunday Times sales in Scotland are around 60,000.

Last year, Times Newspapers Ltd, publisher of both The Times and The Sunday Times, made a pre-tax loss of £45 million. The year before, it made a loss of £87.7 million, and the year before that a loss of £50.2 million. Why does Rupert Murdoch (whose grandfather came from Pitsligo on the Moray Firth) tolerate such losses?

Partly because they provide him with tax losses to set against borrowing funds to expand his news and television empire. Partly because the two Times titles are useful for political leverage – hence the anti-SNP rhetoric. And partly because the articles in the two papers are used to plug Murdoch’s television channels, where he makes his cash.

However, even Rupert Murdoch’s deep pockets can’t stand the crash in the circulation of the Sunday Times. If sales are dropping at 10 per cent per annum, it does not take many years before you have to shut up shop.

So the Sunday Times management has been ordered to slash spending. Last year it closed its prize-winning Scottish section, Ecosse, and fired most of its key Scottish journalists (including Joan McAlpine, who has since become an SNP MSP. Funny that, from a newpaper that has banner headlines about the importance of preserving the Union.

With its Scottish edetorial base much diminished, it is not surprising the Sunday Times has been reduced to inventing stories about “the last Queen of the United Kingdom.” Stories, it should be noted, that are constitutional nonsense.

For any Scottish primary school child knows that the Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England took place in 1603, a century before the creation of the United Kingdom. Scottish independence would not end the Union of the Crowns unless the Scottish people voted for that to happen in a separate referendum.

In fact, the latest polling data shows that only 24 per cent of Scots are republicans, and that SNP voters are actually more royalist that Labour or Lib Dem voters. Far from worrying about the break-up of the United Kingdom, could it be that Queen Elizabeth the I and II is…er, contemplating relocating to an independent Scotland?