The Beginning not the End: Reflections on the Scottish Independence Referendum from a Canadian Perspective

One of my earliest political memories is sitting with my parents on October 30, 1995 watching Quebecers decide whether or not to leave Canada. As a child at the time I did not realize it, but the 1995 referendum was a result of several attempts and failures to come to a compromise between different understandings of the country in Quebec and the rest of Canada. There is a real temptation with the Scottish referendum to draw comparisons between Scotland and Quebec in 1995, but the more apt comparison is between Scotland and the Quebec referendum in 1980. The 1980 referendum, like the most recent Scottish referendum, saw a decisive victory for the no side but also featured commitments on the part of federalists that a no vote would not be considered an endorsement of the status quo. In 1980 Pierre Trudeau told Quebecers that he would take a no vote as a mandate to open negotiations to renew the constitution and rebuild the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Trudeau was able to give Canada a new constitution, but he was unable to bridge the growing divide between Quebec and the rest of Canada, and his 1982 constitution would be adopted without the consent of Quebec. The unionist politicians in the United Kingdom face a similar challenge to the Canadian federalist politicians of the 1980s. They have to make good on the promises of devolution made during this past referendum while not alienating the other nations within the UK, particularly England and Wales. Failure to deliver on their promises could leave the United Kingdom fighting another referendum over Scottish separatism in the not-too-distant future.

In comparison with the Quebec referendum, the Scottish vote was closer than it seemed. In 1995 Quebec voters were asked whether “Quebec should become a sovereign state after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and the agreement signed on June 12, 1995.” With the 1995 question Quebec separatists were able to win the support of 49% of Quebecers. The phrasing of both the 1995 and 1980 questions meant that there is some uncertainty as to how committed yes voters in Quebec were to creating an independent country. Many would have supported full independence, but others would have been voting for a renegotiated relationship with Canada. The same cannot be said for Scotland. The referendum question in Scotland asked “do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country.” There is little ambiguity in the question, one can be reasonably confident in the commitment of the 45% of Scots who voted for yes to create an independent country. When the questions put to Scottish and Quebecois voters are compared, the 4.5% difference in support between what Quebec separatists got in 1995 and what Scottish separatists got this month looks a lot smaller. Scotland may have come a lot closer to the high level of support for separatism that in 1995 threatened to break up Canada than the 10% difference between the yes and the no side suggests. The Scottish separatists are probably a lot closer to a majority yes vote than Quebec separatists were in 1980, and they may even be as close as Quebec separatists were in 1995. This makes the stakes of what comes after the referendum particularly high for UK politicians.

This is significant when one considers that in both Canada and Quebec there was ambiguity in what no voters were supporting. No voters sent a signal rejecting independence, but what they support in its place is not fully clear. Both the 1980 Quebec referendum and the Scottish referendum featured promises on the part of federal (or unionist politicians as they are know in the UK) that a no vote would not mean support for the status quo, but rather would result in some change in the relationship between the region trying to separate and the rest of the country. In neither case were the no-side politicians particularly clear about what that change in relationship would be. Unionist politicians of all parties in the United Kingdom have promised increased devolution of power to Scotland, but they have not been clear on how much devolution there will be. There were likely a significant number of no voters in Scotland who voted no thinking that they would get a large number of new powers for Scotland through devolution, just as there were significant numbers of no voters in 1980 who would have voted no thinking that they would get constitutional change that reflected Quebec’s interests. If the Scottish no voters who support a high level of devolution do not get that devolution, they are likely to become separatist voters in the future.

Trudeau’s delivery on his promise of constitutional renewal failed to meet what many Quebecers felt were the interests of Quebec. Indeed in 1982 Trudeau passed an amended constitution with the support of every provincial except for the Quebec government. The 1982 constitution was not what many Quebecers felt they were promised in 1980. Quebecers would express their discontent with Trudeau in the subsequent 1984 election; the Liberals went from holding 74 of Quebec’s 75 seats to holding only 17 (Trudeau’s retirement meant that it was John Turner who would suffer this electoral drubbing). Brian Mulroney, who took over as Prime Minister in 1984, made two attempts to bring Quebec into the constitution through the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, but both failed to get the necessary cross province support to succeed. The result of federal politicians’ failure to get a constitutional agreement was an re-invigoration of Quebec’s separatist movement that culminated in the 1995 referendum. That referendum saw 49.5% of the province vote in favour separation as compared to the 40% in 1980. Likewise, failure to deliver on the promises that the unionist camp has made is likely to leave some no voters disaffected with the unionist camp they supported in the most recent Scottish referendum. Given that only 10% of no voters in Scotland have to switch sides for the yes camp to win, the costs to unionist politicians of leaving even just a few of their voters unsatisfied with whatever devolution package is offered in the coming year could be very high.

Like in Canada, the promises of greater devolution in the United Kingdom raise questions about whether the interests of Scotland can be balanced with the interests of the rest of the United Kingdom. In Canada, Quebec’s demands for greater recognition were paralleled by an understanding, particularly prevalent in Western Canada, that each province deserved equal recognition. The Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords could not find a balance between Quebec’s demand for greater recognition and Western Canada’s hostility to it. The result was the failure to get a workable constitutional agreement that was accepted both by Quebecers and English Canadians. The United Kingdom faces similar problems. Greater devolution of powers to Scotland comes with questions as to whether the same increase in powers will be given to the Welsh and Northern Irish parliaments. It also raise the question of what to do about England, which is current governed by the British parliament, including by MPs from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Already David Cameron has suggested that devolution of power to Scotland will have to be accompanied by a discussion of what that means for the governance of England as well.

Striking a balance between the claims of these different groups presents a challenge for unionist politicians. Scotland already has more powers and revenue then the Welsh parliament, granting more powers to Scotland without also granting more powers to Wales could frustrate Welsh parliamentarians. Too much devolution though could create a backlash amongst British nationalists who may fear, as Canadian federalists often do, that granting too much power to regional governments can threaten national unity. With respect to England there is also no easy solution. The most workable solution may be to create a true federal system in the United Kingdom with equal regional parliaments in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England, though this solution has limited support amongst British politicians. With 84% of the British population living it England, however, federalism on equal terms may be difficult to make work. An English parliament may end up dominating both inter-regional relationships in the UK and may end up overshadowing the British government itself. Even if federalism as a concept is considered workable, there would have to be negotiations over how much power would be devolved to the regions and how much would state with the British parliament. If these negotiations do not produce an arrangement favourable to Scots, there is a reasonable danger of an increase in support for separatism as Scots feel the promises made by unionists have not been fulfilled.

Another solution might be to create a system of “English votes for English laws” or to adopt dual majority system. In the first system only English MPs would vote on laws related to England while in the second laws relating to England would require majority of not only the British parliament but of the English MPs in the British parliament as well. These systems have their own problems. They can make non-English British MPs look like second-class MPs, and can create a disconnect between the executive that implements laws in England and the legislature that passes them. How might a Labour Prime Minister reliant on seats in Scotland and Wales for her majority implement and enforce laws for England passed by a Conservative majority of English MPs? A dual majority vote might create deadlock on legislation if the majority party in Britain is different than the majority party in England. Failure to resolve these issues related to the rest of the UK present hurdles to the devolution promised by unionist politicians. The interests of other regions, particularly England and Wales may make it difficult for unionist politicians to meet the demands of Scottish voters who voted no expecting greater powers for Scotland.

Then separatist Premier of Quebec Rene Levesque began his concession speech by saying that he understood the message of Quebec voters to be “a la prochaine fois” in English “until next time.” The failure to reach a constitutional agreement in Canada that could unite Quebecers and the rest of Canada meant that when the “next time” came in 1995 the separatist side came within one percent of a majority vote for separatism. What happens in the United Kingdom after the referendum on Scottish independence will determine whether the United Kingdom faces a second, and perhaps a closer, referendum on Scottish referendum in the next couple of decades.


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