What can the 1995 Quebec referendum tell us about the Scottish referendum?

Jonathan HavercroftBy Jonathan Havercroft, Senior Lecturer in International Political Theory at the University of Southampton (Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by Jonathan here.

Word this week that the yes side in the Scottish independence referendum has closed the gap and perhaps even take a small lead (at least according to one poll) has caught the political establishment in the UK off guard. The conventional wisdom for most of the past year has been that the no side in the referendum should win quite handily. And I have to confess that the political scientist in me read the polls the same way. To anyone who asked me for my opinion over the summer months I confidently predicted a victory for the no side. The problem with polling and conventional wisdom for events such as this is that independence referendums are so rare that we have very little previous information with which to make predictions.

But I at least should know better, because one of the very first votes I cast was in the Quebec independence referendum in 1995. And the current referendum in Scotland is starting to look eerily like the 1995 referendum in Quebec. The province of Quebec in Canada has held two referendums on independence. The first was held in 1980 and the no side prevailed by a vote of 60% – 40%. During the second referendum campaign in 1995 the initial polls in June suggested a similar 60% – 40% victory for the no side. And for much of the summer the polls continued to show a strong lead for the no side. With about three weeks left in the campaign the Premier of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau, decided to change things up by nominating the charismatic and popular politician Lucien Bouchard as the head of the yes campaign and the lead negotiator for Quebec independence. This change in the leadership of the yes campaign created a rapid and decisive shift in the polls. Within a week, opinion polls began to show a lead for the yes side. The no campaign was caught flat-footed. The Prime Minister decided to make a last minute special address to the nation. Promises were rapidly made for increased political powers to the province of Quebec. And U.S. President Bill Clinton even took time during a press conference to make a direct plea to Quebeckers to remain in Canada. Yet, the polls kept showing clear momentum towards the yes side. One of the last polls released before the referendum predicted a yes victory by 6% — outside the poll’s margin or error.

I will always remember October 30th, 1995, the day of the referendum vote. I went to the polls early to cast my vote, and then I spent most of the rest of the day on the campus at Concordia University. The thing that struck me was how quiet and tense the city was. Nobody wanted to discuss the vote, but it was clearly the only thing on anyone’s mind. When the polls finally closed in the evening we sat down to watch the returns. For most of the night, the Yes side was ahead by a sizeable margin. But as the vote came in from the English majority areas of Montreal, the No side closed the gap, and eventually (late in the evening) squeaked out a 50.58% to 49.42% win.

These days, when people in England learn I am from Quebec, they usually proceed to ask me “Do they still want to separate over there?” The answer to that question is of course a complicated one. In the aftermath of the Quebec referendum in 1995 most people (including myself) believed that it was only a matter of time before there would be a third referendum and that the yes side would win. Yet, in the interim, the federal Government in Canada responded to the referendum by delegating more power to Quebec and meeting some (but not all) of the core demands of the nationalist movement in Quebec. And so, somewhat paradoxically, a strong independence movement in Quebec has over the long term made Quebec independence less likely.

So, what lessons can citizens in the UK (whether living inside Scotland or outside) take from the 1995 Quebec referendum? First, we should not be too surprised that the polls have shown a narrowing race as the day of the vote draws near. While most elite opinion (including Rupert Murdoch) has quickly blamed the political elite in Westminster for bungling the referendum campaign, in votes on national independence, political leaders from the central government face a difficult choice. If they campaign too actively for unity, they end up sounding like they are meddling and condescending. Yet, if they campaign too little, they are quickly accused of being aloof and disinterested in the demands of the nation seeking independence. The yes campaigns, on the other hand, have the advantage of appealing to national pride, and speaking to and on behalf of the nation voting on independence. So, campaigns for independence have some built in advantages over campaigns against independence.

Second, in terms of the vote itself, I think it is now in the genuine toss up category.  As the polls narrow, the yes side has two clear advantages. First, all the momentum over the last two weeks is clearly on its side. Second, it clearly has a more mobilized base and the SNP has a very strong get out the vote (GOTV) operation. In close races, the side with the momentum and a strong GOTV operation usually wins. However, given that this is not just an election to choose the next government, but a vote to create a new country, my hunch is that a lot of the remaining undecided voters will eventually decide to vote no as undecided voters are probably more risk averse. This is what happened in Quebec in 1995.

Third, regardless of the outcome of the vote on September 18th, this will not be the end of the Scottish independence movement, but only the end of the beginning. If the yes campaign is triumphant, then we will enter into a period of negotiations over how Scotland will become an independent state and all of the open questions about currency, national defence, and relations to the EU, along with numerous other issues most of us have not even thought about yet, will have to be resolved. But, even if the no side wins, the fact that an independence referendum has been so close will create pressure for greater constitutional concessions to Scotland. After both of Quebec’s referendums, the Canadian federal government responded with greater decentralization of powers to the provinces. There are already reports in national papers in England, that the UK government this week will announce plans to devolve more powers to Scotland. After a close no vote in a referendum, there will be serious pressure on Westminster to not only devolve more powers to Scotland, but to reconsider the very constitutional structure of the UK. And so, just as the no votes in both of Quebec’s referendums sparked significant reforms to the Canadian Constitution, regardless of the outcome of the Scottish referendum, its aftermath is bound to provoke significant changes to the UK constitution.

4 thoughts on “What can the 1995 Quebec referendum tell us about the Scottish referendum?

    • ” given that this is not just an election to choose the next government, but a vote to create a new country,”

      On this point the parallels fail spectacularly

      This is not a vote to create a new country but to re-establish a very old one

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