What can the UK learn from the aftermath of Quebec’s two independence referendums?

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.

No does not mean the Scottish Independence movement is dead

Quebec has had two independence referendums. The first was in 1980 when Quebec’s nationalist party, the Parti Québécois (PQ) was the provincial government for the first time. The “no” side won that vote 60% – 40%. Despite losing, the PQ won the next Provincial election, and the nationalist party has held power in Quebec for 15 of the 35 years since. The 1980 referendum consolidated the electoral base of the PQ. The SNP can look on the results of the referendum as evidence that a significant bloc of voters in Scotland support independence. The SNP can now count on this 45% of the electorate to be their political base for the foreseeable future. While we may not see another Scottish independence vote for 15 years, questions about Scottish nationalism will be central to both Scottish and Westminster politics for the foreseeable future. Even without another referendum on the horizon, the threat of a referendum in the future is likely to be a key political lever that the SNP can use to extract more political concessions from Westminster.

No votes result in constitutional changes

In the closing days of the 1980 Quebec referendum, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised to reform the Canadian Constitution should the No side win. This promise, combined with the no vote, led to fifteen years of debate over constitutional reforms that culminated in the second, much closer Quebec referendum in 1995. In the intervening years Canada ratified the 1982 Constitution Act that significantly revamped the constitution. Two other major reform proposals – the 1987 Meech Lake Accord and the 1992 Charlottetown Accord – were both defeated in acrimonious political processes. After the 1995 referendum there were further constitutional changes brought about via devolution of powers from the Federal Government to Quebec, a reference question to the Canadian Supreme Court concerning the procedures for Quebec secession in the event of a no vote, and the controversial passage a the Clarity Act, designed to spell out the terms for any future Quebec referendum on independence. Independence referendums won by the “no” side do not mean a return to the status quo ante. In order for a referendum on independence to be held, a plurality of voters will have already elected a party favouring a referendum. This means that there is significant pressure on the central government to accede to some of the demands of the independence movement. The Scottish referendum is not the end of constitutional struggles in the UK. We can expect the referendum to mark the beginning of a period of debate over devolution and constitutional reform. Constitutional reform will be a major issue in the Parliamentary elections next year.

Asymmetrical devolution to Scotland will alienate other UK constituencies

The constitutional debates in Canada led to a series of political crises between the province of Quebec, the Canadian federal government, and the other provinces. Attempts to meet some of Quebec’s constitutional demands were immediately met by complaints from other Canadian provinces and leaders of Canada’s First Nations that these deals were unfairly favouring Quebeckers. Similarly in Britain, David Cameron’s speech after the referendum in which he put the issue of greater devolution to Scotland and the other nations in the UK on the agenda was immediately greeted by complaints from ring-wing politicians such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage that these plans for devolution were fundamentally unfair to the English.

The promises made by the Westminster political party leaders in their pre-referendum “Vow” have immediately revived the “English Question/West Lothian Question” on devolution of powers. Why should the Scottish MPs in Westminster be permitted to vote on bills that do not affect them because the relevant power has already been devolved to Holyrood? This issue will be the trickiest in any future constitutional changes in the UK. At the moment there are three possible answers to the “English Question”: 1) Excluding Westminster MPs from constituencies in Scotland, Ireland and Wales from voting on bills that only concern English constituents. 2) The creation of an English Parliament similar in power and scope to the other national assemblies 3) The creation of nine regional assemblies in England with powers similar in scope to the assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each of these proposals has significant advantages and disadvantages. Any of them would be politically difficult to implement because of fierce opposition from entrenched interests. Failure to resolve the English Question is likely to provoke an English political backlash against Scotland. Yet using the English Question as an excuse for not devolving further political powers to Scotland will only make a future referendum on Scottish independence more likely.

Devolving Power to Scotland will make independence less likely in the long term

The final, and perhaps most significant lesson that the UK can take from Canada, is that Quebec is still in the confederation. This seemed extremely unlikely to most Canadians in 1995. Paradoxically, by devolving more power to Quebec in response to the demands of the nationalist movement, the Canadian government has made Quebec secession less likely. Why? Like the SNP, in between referendum campaigns, Quebec’s PQ has had to use its provincial powers to govern. By having greater autonomy to implement its preferred social, cultural, and economic policies at the provincial level, the PQ has been able to construct a social democratic polity that it had initially envisioned for its post-independence polity. As such, many Quebec voters feel that they have been able to achieve their vision for a distinct Quebec society without having to bear the risks that would go with independence. In addition, the longer that the PQ has been one of the major political parties in Quebec, the more experience Quebec voters have had with it as a governing party. And the more experience voters have with the PQ as a governing party, the more the electorate views the party as no different from other mainstream parties. This in turn makes it more difficult for PQ leadership to claim that Quebec’s problems would be solved if the PQ could govern a sovereign Quebec. A similar dynamic could play out in Scotland. Having held a referendum, voters in Scotland will now be evaluating the SNP on how well it governs. More devolution of powers to Scotland may appease the demands of many who voted yes for independence. It would also enable the SNP greater freedom to construct its vision of Scotland as a Nordic social democracy. The SNP may see this as a way to persuade voters about how successful an independent Scotland would be. However, many soft Scottish nationalists may decide that a more autonomous Scotland can have all of the benefits of an independent Scotland without taking any of the risks of an actual “yes” vote. Furthermore, the longer that the SNP is a governing party, the less it will be able to appeal to voters as an attractive alternative to politics as usual. The more the SNP appears to voters as just one political party among others, the less the Scottish electorate will see independence as offering an alternative to politics as usual.

2 thoughts on “What can the UK learn from the aftermath of Quebec’s two independence referendums?

  1. I think a key element that you touched on, was the lack of ‘yes’ success in the referendum in areas which had been considered SNP strongholds. You could still see around the 45% yes vote, but those areas were expected to be resosunding ‘yes’ wins, not close losses. Commentators did ask whether that showed that SNP voters were happy to have them governing a devolved Scotland, but that didn’t mean they wanted to leave the union.
    The VOW offered in panic will have massive ramifications for the rest of the UK now!

  2. This is good analysis, and the parallels with Quebec continue to be valid, however I wonder on your last point if those voters are looking for an alternative to politics, or an alternative to Westminster politics.

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