Until next time: Lessons from Quebec

As the phoney war of the referendum campaign continues, the unique nature of the referendum itself has flown under the radar. In the UK, with parliamentary primacy very rarely giving way to the direct democracy of referenda, the very asking of a question in a plebiscite is rare. Rarer still, and a fact unionists will take succour from, is the act of secession via referendum – there are no prior cases of a western sub-state entity seceding through the device of referenda. But nationalists too may be buoyed by the exceptionality of achieving secession in this manner, enthused as they are about a Scotland made anew. To the frustration of scholars of federalism and nationalism, parallel cases are few and far between. Those arguing their case in Scotland may begin, however, to look across the Atlantic for counsel because, as the debate progresses, the parallels with Quebec’s referendum of 1980 are becoming apparent.

Traditionally, the act of sidelining parliamentary primacy for a referendum is viewed to be the line in the sand on the issue in question; that the result of a referendum on any subject will represent the final decision of the people. Unionists in Scotland have promoted this orthodoxy by expressing fears that the SNP will push for successive referenda until their wishes are grants. Indeed, the phrase used by many to define this strategy is actually borrowed from the political narrative of the Quebec referenda – the “neverendum”. And yet, in Quebec, it was those promoting the continuation of the Canadian federation who unknowingly advanced the case for a second referendum. Their mistakes, and the way in which nationalists took advantage of them, should be familiar to all keeping an eye on Scotland.

Far from drawing a line in the sand, Quebec’s 1980 referendum has been referred to by Larry Savage as being a “critical juncture in the political history of Quebec”. In an attempt to shore up support for a ‘non’ vote in the referendum, the Canadian government made a cunning but ill-defined promise of “renewed federalism”. Implicit in this promise was recognition that the status-quo was on borrowed time and that Quebec’s constitutional relationship with Canada would require change. So far, so familiar. Since the Scottish Government’s White Paper unionists have been asked to outline their own proposals for a post-referendum Scotland. A simple request, and one which Gordon Brown, Stephen Purcell and David Torrance have all opined on over recent weeks, but in this request there is an inherent risk for those seeking to keep Scotland within the union.

While the Canadian government’s vaguely defined concept of renewed federalism worked wonders during the referendum campaign, the Quebecois public grew expectant in the months following. Nationalists were prescient in predicting that, despite their resounding defeat by 15 points, this was far from the end – “A la prochaine fois!”, until next time, roared Quebecois PM Rene Levesque in his concession address. Andre Turcotte accurately summarised the progress of the promised renewal of federalism by noting that “almost a year had passed since the Quebeckers came within a hair’s breadth of forever altering the political structure of Canada, and nothing has changed”.

With the majority of Scots seeking at least some change to the constitutional status quo, the dilemma of how to deal with this desire must be high on the talking points in Better Together HQ. For it is inconceivable that “we’ll talk about it later”, a line used by parents to placate the outlandish wishes of their children, will suffice for the majority of the campaign proper or for the majority of the electorate. The quandary for unionists is that while they are required to outline changes they envision, they are playing with fire by promising change.

When the Candian Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney did get around to constitutional change, it was widely welcomed in Quebec. Quebeckers were optimistic about Mulroney’s desire to codify the distinctiveness of the province but similar warmth toward constitutional change was not to be found in the other provinces. It was not lost on English Canada that the majority of the country was being asked to fundamentally alter their relationship with the state for the benefit of one province. The unravelling of the Meech Lake Accord – an agreement on the special status of Quebec and a widespread alteration of the system of federalism – was the end of the road for the idea of renewed federalism and the promise of increased autonomy was undelivered. Those who sought change in Quebec – from those desiring secession to those seeking increased autonomy – were left empty handed and from this disappointment came another referendum in 1995. This time, however, the promise of gradual change by the Canadian government carried no weight and secessionists went from losing the 1980 plebiscite by 19% to a narrow defeat of 1% and only 60,000 votes.

Unionists would be wise to take heed of this period in Canadian history. The majority of the Scottish electorate seeks an alternative settlement between Westminster and Scotland, but little has been said about the UK-wide ramifications such a proposal would have. It is not hard to imagine the regions of the UK feeling angry that Scotland was being granted special status. Even northern Irish unionists, who’ll never miss an opportunity to remind you of their loyalty to the union, are currently asking for increased devolution in the form of control of corporation tax. And what of England, where identity is undergoing rapid and unpredictable changes? Rather than pressing unionists on how far they will go on devolution, nationalists should be asking if delivery of a settlement resembling devo-max is possible at all.

For the individual parties under the umbrella of Better Together, the Quebec case will make for uncomfortable reading. It would be easy to assume that losing a sovereignty referendum would be detrimental to electoral fortunes, but this was not the case for the Parti Quebecois. Convinced that negotiations on autonomy would be forthcoming, Quebeckers flocked to the PQ in the hope that they would drive a hard bargain with the federal government. A year after they lost the referendum they increased their vote share to 49% and won the Quebec parliament election.

The disparate groups that have aligned for Better Together have disagreed on little in their attempt to win the referendum, but there has been notable distance between all on what should occur if Scotland votes no. Within the constituent parties there appears to be significant disagreement between those willing to speak on the issue and colleagues who are unprepared to fathom that increased autonomy for Scotland is the new “settled will of the Scottish people”. The history of Quebec suggests that before they gather around the one hymn sheet, unionists should ensure that they can reach the high notes.


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