Scotland referendum No vote holds lessons for Canada

It's tempting to look at the results in Scotland's not-so-close referendum and conclude there are no real lessons for Canada, a country that already has weathered two failed campaigns for separation. But that would be a mistake, writes Chris Hall.

Friday's result gives little fuel for Quebec's sovereigntist movement - but never say never

Canada's experience with independence votes shows the defeat of the Yes campaign in Scotland is more a "not now" than a "not ever." And that means there are lessons for Canada in Friday's results. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

It's tempting to look at the results in Scotland's not-so-close referendum and conclude there are no real lessons for Canada, a country that already has weathered two failed campaigns for separation and just this year saw voters in Quebec soundly reject the separatist Parti Québécois.

But that would be a mistake.

Experience has taught us that a win for the No side in a referendum means "Not now." It doesn't mean "Not ever" — in Scotland or in Canada.

Scots have already given the world whisky, the steam engine, Encyclopaedia Britannica and the world's first television. Now they've produced something else: a playbook for how a referendum campaign should be run.

It was, by and large, a remarkably civil affair given the stakes, with governments in London and Edinburgh co-operating on the wording of the question, who was eligible to vote and an orderly process for separation should the Yes side prevail.
The way the Scottish campaign unfolded will be scrutinized closely in Canada, especially in Quebec. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

The way the Scottish campaign unfolded will be scrutinized closely in Canada, especially in Quebec. Key figures in the now-dormant sovereignty movement, including most of the leadership contenders for the Parti Québécois, spent time in Scotland enthusiastically following how the Scottish Yes side did its work.

They no doubt return deflated, with Friday's result more in line with the clear setback of the 1980 Quebec referendum than the achingly close result of 1995, when it appeared sovereigntists' dream of independence from Canada was about to be realized.

But they've witnessed first-hand the positive side of the Scottish Yes campaign, most notably the importance of embracing minorities and young people in the cause.

Sense of relief

For Canada's government, there is certainly a sense of relief.

"The Scottish people have voted to remain within a strong United Kingdom,'' Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a release Friday. "Canada welcomes this decision.''

For Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Scottish separation made no economic sense.

The very moment the debate is framed as saying, "If you vote Yes you are proud, if you vote No you are afraid," then you are in trouble- St

The prime minister had expressed something close to astonishment during a visit earlier this month to London that the U.K. was going through a referendum at all.

"The idea of separating English people from Scottish people, in Canada, is almost inconceivable,'' he said.

Harper warned of the economic consequences of dividing countries such as Canada and the U.K. "There's nothing in dividing those countries that would serve either the greater global interests, or frankly, the interests of ordinary people in these countries," he said in an interview with The Spectator.

For Ottawa, Friday's result in Scotland is not only better than the polls suggested, it gives the sovereigntist movement in Quebec little fuel for an immediate regeneration of its own movement.

Even so, there are a number of takeaways from the Scottish referendum for Canadians to consider.

Let's be clear

Scots were asked a clear question, drawn up by both the British and Scottish governments. "Should Scotland be an independent country?'' left no doubt about what a Yes or No vote would mean.

Contrast that with the convoluted, even tortured questions put to Quebecers in 1980 and 1995, the first seeking a mandate to negotiate "sovereignty association," the second posing a new economic and political union.

A simple question has to be the standard in any future referendum. Canada must insist on having a hand in drafting it.

Equally clear was that Westminster would accept a simple majority. The same standard to elect a government for four years would be good enough to break apart the country forever.

Liberal MP Stéphane Dion questions the wisdom of that. He still favours the ‘'clear majority'' demanded by the federal Clarity Act, which he sponsored.

"We should not try to break up a country when we are unsure of the result. We need to have a clear result.''

New Democrat MP Alexandre Boulerice takes the opposite view. He says the NDP's official policy of accepting "50 per cent plus 1" is now the standard.

"For us, it's good news that the mechanism there is similar to what we are proposing if the situation ever shows up again in Canada.''

Sense of pride

Quebec's sovereigntist movement has always been based on protecting and promoting the province's distinct French language and culture. It's not always a positive message, as the ill-fated Charter of Values underscored in the PQ's election defeat this year.

In Scotland, the drive was less about identity than political and economic issues, and the Yes side embraced those who weren't Scottish born and bred.
Parti Québécois leadership candidate Alexandre Cloutier was among sovereigntists closely watching the Scottish referendum. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

It was a far more positive message. Far more appealing to young people.

In the Parti Québécois, acknowledges potential leadership candidate Alexandre Cloutier, minorities and non-francophones don't feel welcome.

"We have to make a place for everyone,'' he told CBC News Network's Power & Politics this week.

For Dion, the most important takeaway from the Scottish campaign is reinforcing the notion that you can be both a proud Quebecker and proud Canadian.

"The main lesson is that if you want to be sure to win a referendum don't give up to the separatists the argument of pride,'' Dion says. "The very moment the debate is framed as saying, 'If you vote Yes you are proud, if you vote No you are afraid,' then you are in trouble."

Until next time

And there's one more thing for Canadian politicians to consider in the aftermath of the Scottish campaign: Complacency is not a workable strategy when confronted with the prospect of separation.

The panic in the last days of the No campaign was eerily reminiscent of the final days of the 1995 Quebec referendum.

For Britain, the campaign is over, and negotiations now begin over transferring powers to grant more autonomy to Scotland, as promised by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.

In Canada, the separatist movement may be dormant as Quebecers wrestle with the same concerns as the rest of the country: lost jobs, stagnant economic growth and stifling provincial deficits.

But those priorities, too, will pass.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc


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