Scotland's pro- and anti-independence camps weigh the lessons of Quebec

On Sept. 18, people in Scotland will vote in a referendum to decide whether they should be part of an independent country. In the lead-up to that vote, both the Yes and No camps have been studying the lessons learned from Quebec's sovereignty movement.

On Sept. 18, Scots will cast vote in independence referendum

Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, has led the charge for Scotland's bid for independence from Great Britain. (Russell Cheyne/Reuters)

At first glance, it might seem Quebec and Scotland have little in common. But look a little closer and some similarities emerge.

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Both are famous for culinary delights that are questionable for your health (poutine in Quebec, deep-fried Mars bars in Scotland). Both have given the world some, shall we say, debatable pop stars (Celine Dion from Quebec, the Bay City Rollers from Scotland).

Come Sept. 18, a more significant similarity will become apparent. That’s when Scotland's sovereignty movement will try to wrestle its nationhood back from Great Britain.

On that day, four million people will go to the polls to say "Yes" or "No" to this very simple question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

The clarity and directness of the referendum question is striking, particularly in light of the two Quebec referendums (1980 and 1995), which skirted the question of outright independence and asked long, convoluted questions.

Some of the other questions swirling around the Scottish independence movement might resonate with Quebec's history of referendums: Why break up something that many people feel works just fine? And why all the sabre-rattling when Scots are hardly an oppressed minority?

Annis May Timpson has a unique perspective on these questions. She’s the director of the Centre of Canadian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, and lived in Canada during the 1980 and 1995 referendums on Quebec sovereignty.

'Most people wish to remain in the UK'

Timpson points out that the Scottish population doesn’t universally share the Scottish National Party’s zeal for independence.

“I think it is very important to distinguish between the Scottish government’s wish to secure independence for Scotland – now led by the Scottish National Party – and public opinion on the question of Scottish independence," Timpson told Francine Pelletier, guest host of CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition.

"Because public opinion shows that most people wish to remain in the UK."

The latest opinion polls show that 32 per cent are in favour of independence, 45 per cent oppose it and 23 per cent are undecided.

Despite those unpromising numbers, SNP leader Alex Salmond, the first minister of Scotland, has forged ahead with the referendum, making the case that Scottish independence will create a society that reflects a socially progressive vision more in line with Scottish values than the political culture of England.

British Labour MP Alistair Darling has been the face of Scotland's anti-independence campaign. (David Moir/Reuters)

Timpson makes the point that Scotland has “a more communitarian spirit” than its English neighbours.

“Like the Parti Quebecois when they were elected in 1976,” said Timpson, “the Scottish National Party has pursued a progressive agenda as a party in government – first as a minority government in 2007 and then as a majority government in 2011.”

'A civic culture that is open to all'

After the 1995 Quebec referendum, then-Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau complained that the "ethnic vote" had been a contributing factor to the No side's win. Timpson says the Scottish independence movement is less about protecting a cultural heritage.

"I think that one of the things that is very interesting about Scotland is that it does have a much stronger civic nationalist identity, of being a civic culture that is open to all," observes Timpson. 

Much has been made of the influence Quebec’s experience with separation referendums is having on both the Yes and No sides in Scotland. But one thing both sides also want to avoid is the Canadian “Neverendum,” a debate that continues indefinitely and remains unresolved.

To that end, officials opted for a short, clear, direct question and hope for an unambiguous result one way or the other.

Still, Timpson suggests that a new generation of voters – 16- and 17-year-olds will be eligible to vote in the referendum – will make things interesting in the future.

“At the moment, [the youth vote] looks more likely to vote no because of perceived economic advantages of being part of Britain," says Timpson.

"But nonetheless, those young people are being politically mobilized, and they will be the next generation of politicians.

"So the question is, will those young people, in 15 years' time, when they themselves are taking up political roles, take up the question of a future referendum? Or will they have a much more global sense, where this question of a separate country is not as important to them?”

You can hear Francine Pelletier’s full interview with Annis May Timpson this weekend on The Sunday Edition on CBC Radio One just after the 9 a.m. news.


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