Why Stay? The Case Against Separatism Depends on Mutually Beneficial Institution not on Common National Identity

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has led to renewed efforts among Scottish nationalists to gain independence from the UK. Less than two years after Scotland’s first referendum on independence failed, the vote for Brexit has led Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to announce that a second independence referendum is now under consideration. There is also substantial support in Scotland for both another referendum and for independence. The resurgence of Scottish nationalism has important lessons for federalists in Canada and unionists in the United Kingdom. In both countries national unity is based not on a common sense of national identity but on mutually beneficial political and economic institutions. When those institutions are undermined, the cases to keep Quebec in Canada and Scotland in the UK are as well.

Federalist and unionist appeals to a common identity are unlikely to be successful because there is not a strong common identity that links Quebecers with Canada or Scots with the UK.  In a 2014 poll of Quebec youth (one of the age groups least likely to support separatism) CROP found that only 28% identified as Canadian first.  In Scotland the levels of identification with Britain are also low. The research centre What Scotland Thinks finds that Scottish identification with Britain has consistently been below 25% over the past 15 years. If Quebecers are forced to choose between Canada and Quebec most are going to choose Quebec and if Scots are forced to choose between Scotland and the UK most are going to choose Scotland.

Canadian federalists and Scottish Unionists, both inside Quebec and Scotland and outside of them, need to come to grips with this reality. Successful campaigns to keep Canada and the United Kingdom together cannot be based on a sense of common national identity. Rallies, like the Unity Rally held in Montreal during the 1995 referendum are unlikely to make an impact on voters considering a vote for separation because they appeal to a patriotism that those voters do not share. The more federalists and unionists look for a common national identity as a basis for arguments against separatism the more they are going to expose divisions between Quebecers and Canadians and Scots and Brits.

The most successful arguments against separatism are arguments that separatism is likely to cause significant economic harm to Quebec and Scotland, and that make claims that federal arrangements (or quasi-federal arrangement in the case of the UK) can allow governments in Quebec and Scotland the autonomy to maintain their own identities. Both Canada and the United Kingdom transfer substantial amounts of money to Quebec and Scotland. This occurs both in the form of national programs that benefit Quebecers and Scots as well as direct cash transfers to the governments of both regions. In both Quebec and Scotland fear over what would happen economically should the region choose to become independent served as a powerful argument against separatism. Arguments that federal institutions and recognition give regional (in Canada provincial) governments the power necessary to protect Quebecois or Scottish identity can further strengthen the claims of opponents of separatism. Canadians and Brits can seriously undermine the case for separatism if they can demonstrate the cultural protections separatists often seek can been gained without separation. Opponents of separatism must be careful not to undermine these cases against separatism if they wish to keep their countries together.

In voting to leave the European Union, Britain did exactly this. In addition to benefiting from being part of the UK, Scots also benefit immensely from being part of the EU. Scotland receives significant transfers from the EU and many in Scotland value the customs union that they have with the rest of Europe. This is why Scotland overwhelming to stay in the European Union. It is also not clear that what Britain offers Scotland is worth more than what the EU offers. In the event of a Brexit it is difficult to see why Scots would vote to remain in the UK. If Brexit makes Scotland worse off, and if there is little in the way of a common identity binding Scots to the UK, the incentives for Scots to vote against independence will end up becoming quite weak.

Multiple referendums of separation in Quebec highlight the fact that Quebec’s presence in Canada cannot be taken for granted. Arguments against Quebec separatism rely on a delicate balance of appeals to mutual economic interests and to a federal arrangements that allow the government of Quebec to maintain control of many of the province’s cultural institutions. Weakening the extent to which Quebec benefits from being part of the country, by reducing transfer payments for example, can undermine the ties that keep Quebec in Canada. Similarly failing to recognize Quebec as a distinct society or limiting the extent to which Quebec’s provincial government can work to protect the French language for Quebecers can weaken the case against separatism. The best way to keep Quebec in Canada is to demonstrate that Quebecers can gain the advantages of economic union with Canada while maintaining their own unique identity. Canadian federalists should see the case of Brexit and Scotland as a warning. Undermining the economic and political arrangements that create incentives for Quebec to remain in Canada will seriously threaten national unity in a way that no appeals to patriotism can fix.

Neither Canada nor the United Kingdom is a nation-state nor are they American style melting pots. There is no common identity that can hold Canada and the United Kingdom together. For a large portion of Quebecers and Scots, Canada and the United Kingdom are mutually beneficial political and economic arrangements. This is not a bad thing. Appeals to mutual interest and common political institutions allow Canada and the United Kingdom to contain remarkable levels of diversity. Recognition and respect for differences can allow Quebec and the rest of Canada and Brits and Scots to both benefit from sharing the same country. This, however, requires that Canadians and Brits do not make decisions that undermine the interests of Quebecers and Scots. By voting to leave the EU, many Brits have taken the UK out of an Union that is highly important to Scots, hurt Scots’ economic interests, and increased Scots’ incentives to leave the UK.


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