Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Scotland and Quebec - A Reply to a Scottish Nationalist

There are reefs to negotiate before you reach the promised land. In many ways, your opinions remind me of the intelligent and impassioned material published on and from Quebec during the 1980s and 1990s - when I lived in Canada. Both the arguments and the fervour are remarkably similar, though thankfully yours lack the edge of anglophobic bitterness evident in some Quebecois writings of the time.
Familiar, too, are Alex Salmond’s demands for more money from central government (see here and here).
Maurice Duplessis was the first Quebec premier to demand “notre butin” (our booty) from the Canadian federal government; a cry that was taken up by several of his successors - not least Jacques Parizeau - the Quebec Premier who very nearly won the 1995 independence referendum. In demanding extra cash, Salmond employs the same arguments as those used by Parizeau, including the apparently powerful one of “it’s our money in the first place”. Those demands can, however, be a two-edged sword, because in the population at large they can create an awareness not necessarily of simple dependence of the smaller entity on the larger but of a strong symbiosis between the two. Whatever the arguments in favour of Scottish independence, it would be idle to pretend that Scotland derives no advantages at all from the present dispensation. Far better to look at the weaknesses of the independence case and to deal with them than to pretend they aren’t there.
One disagreeable interjection in the 1995 Parti Quebecois referendum campaign was Parizeau’s comment that if electors voted - however narrowly - for secession they would be “like lobsters thrown into boiling water” - in other words, there would be no going back: Quebec’s destiny would be in his and the Party’s hands. Some said he was intoxicated - not by alcohol but by the prospect of victory and national power. The comment undoubtedly cost him precious votes.
In those years, Quebec was far nearer to Independence than Scotland has ever been (since the Union, of course). Yet, in the end, voters didn’t buy it. Parizeau blamed the loss of the 1995 vote firmly on the “ethnic” population - a racist comment that he later regretted. Racism, however, was never entirely absent from the drinking water in those years. The phrase “Quebecois de vieille souche” (Quebecker of French ancestry - which, amongst other things, also meant “white”) was no longer widely used - but for many the term “Quebecois” had precisely the same meaning. Ironically, Quebec’s immigrant population had grown as part of a policy designed to enhance the Province’s economic strength. I don’t know what percentage of Scotland’s current population consists of immigrants or people whose roots lie in other parts of the UK - but you will doubtless have a good feel for their presence in the Scottish mosaic. Are they significant? Are their concerns being addressed or are they marginalized in this debate? If the referendum fails will they be blamed?
The 1995 Quebec referendum could have gone either way. Almost immediately afterwards, however, Quebeckers’s appetite for independence began to wilt at the edges. In the recent Canadian federal election, the Bloc Quebecois (the federal arm of the Party) was massacred - winning only 4 seats - down from 48 before the election. The jubilation at that result - right across Canada, including Quebec - is enormous. Canadians may have decided after all that they are stronger together than apart. Unity can be an ideal too, and championed with no less fervour than you display in advocating independence.
As a Canadian, I feel relief that Quebec independence is, at least for the time being, in the long grass (it could, of course, find its way back in the future). As a Brit - that’s how I always describe myself - I would be sorry to see Scotland’s departure from the Union because I believe it would weaken all four of its members. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect the independence movement. If Scotland becomes convinced that it should secede, then undoubtedly it has a right to so (though I hate to think how the terms of separation would be negotiated).
Over the life of this new Scottish parliament, we can expect a huge effort to persuade the people that independence is in their best interests. How much persuasion is legitimate? When does persuasion start leaning too heavily on hyperbole?
Apart from Canada, I have also worked and lived for extended periods in the so-called developing world - notably in Latin America and Africa. I wonder if those who desire to break up countries like Canada and the UK know how privileged we are to belong in such a society, how benign are our conditions of life, how extraordinary our opportunities for personal fulfilment, how exceptional our tolerance of “others”, how remarkable our freedoms?
UK politics infuriates me. Much of it is trivial, tribal, centred on picayune squabbling and point scoring. I find the sight of adults baying at each other across the parliamentary benches nauseating. The fact that huge amounts of time and effort - and acres of newsprint - have been devoted to the expenses scandal but almost none to the free-market ideology that lies behind the international financial crisis strikes me as perverse. Still, what we have here is far better than in too many other places in the world.
Like you, Gerry, I would like to see the golden city on a hill that you describe for Scotland. There is nothing in your vision that doesn’t equally apply to all four countries of the Union. I believe that we have a much greater chance of achieving that vision together than any of us do apart.


  1. Why should not Scotland become the 28th state of the European Union-a greater, and inevitably in time, (despite all its current defects) a more substantial non-imperial achievement than the dreams of a long-gone British Empire.

    At present the island of Ireland has 15 MEPs, the larger population of Scotland has a mere 6 (and no seat at the top table).

    It is only a matter of "when" Scotland becomes a separate European State-it is not going to allow the one Scottish Tory MP (out of 59) to rule our country for much longer.

  2. Dave Colwell, BC, CanadaDecember 10, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    In the light of the above there appears to be an interesting related sideline recently, regarding the EU treaty issue. It appears Britain wants it's separation!
    Perhaps another wish to have "'s cake and eat it" too. My concern is that Britain will be increasingly isolated..not just for the recent action by the Government but also by some vengeance on the part of the more powerful members of the signed-up EU.
    True the UK has never adopted the Euro but it has enjoyed many other privilages of the "Club".
    Membership and active participation in NATO has been sighted as a "pat on the back" reason for standing up for the Nationalistic benefits of future inclusion sighting, among other reasons, the "Single Market", but is this frankly good enough? The "careful what you wish for" cliche has been mentioned and I must say I do agree.

    In short one could say that the UK Government, under the present leadership, has been selfish, and possibly very misguided in these recent actions. Let us all hope it works out well for all of us.

    In this day and age, I am not much a fan of Nationalism and, in any case, it has not had much of a good track record in the past.