What Scotland independence crusader Alex Salmond learned from Quebec

Scotland's separatist leader was laying the groundwork for an independence vote during Quebec's referendum in 1995, Don Murray writes.

Scottish separatist leader was laying groundwork for vote during Quebec's referendum in 1995

Nearly two decades prior to Scotland's own independence vote, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond was fascinated by the social and political elements that influenced the 1995 referendum in Quebec. (Andrew Milligan/Associated Press)

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He’s hardly Hollywood’s vision of charismatic, but then, neither was René Lévesque.

Yet Scotland’s separatist leader Alex Salmond, like Quebec’s Lévesque before him, marries political charm and relentlessness in pursuit of a goal that, at the beginning of his quest, seemed not only unreachable but almost unthinkable.

I met Salmond at the time of Quebec’s second referendum in 1995. I had been posted to the CBC’s London bureau just months before the Quebec vote, and during the final campaign went to see how Scotland and the Scottish National Party were reacting.

The answer, in the first case, was tepidly, and in the second, cautiously. With one exception: Alex Salmond.

Then, as now, Salmond was the leader and driving force in the SNP. The Quebec quest for independence fitted nicely into his thesis that small countries can thrive on their own in the big world. His favourite examples were closer to him: Norway, Finland and the ‘Celtic tiger’ Ireland. (Ireland no longer gets star billing in his speeches after it imploded in the 2008 economic meltdown.)

Alex Salmond (centre) poses with supporters of the 'Yes Campaign', in Edinburgh, Scotland. The pitch of the debate has grown increasingly urgent as anti-independence campaigners argue that separation could send the economy into a tailspin, while the Yes side accuses its foes of scaremongering. (Russell Cheyne/Reuters)

In 1995 Salmond was one of four SNP MPs in the British House of Commons – a tiny handful in a chamber of more than 650 members. There was no Scottish Assembly, and without one, no visible road to independence.

No matter. A few days after the earthshaking result in Quebec, when the Yes side fell just short of winning, I met Salmond after a post-referendum briefing at the Quebec Delegation in London.

What followed was nothing short of a forensic interrogation.

I had told him I had covered the first Quebec referendum and had followed the second quite closely from afar. He hammered me with questions about tactics, about the choice of questions, about ‘sovereignty-association,’ ‘profitable federalism,’ and the role of language.

Salmond wanted all the details I could offer about Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau’s referendum-night speech attributing his side’s narrow loss to ‘money and ethnic votes.’

Parizeau resigned as premier the next day, unlike his predecessor René Lévesque who stayed on after the first referendum and won a second majority in the Quebec National Assembly. Salmond wanted to know all about that as well.

Luck and perseverance

It seemed to me that the interest shown by this minority Scottish politician was esoteric verging on obsessive. But Salmond has what Napoleon always looked for in his generals: luck.

The next year a Labour government under Tony Blair came to power in Britain and offered, almost in passing, limited devolution or federalism, and an Assembly to Scotland. The Scottish National Party was transformed.

At the first Scottish elections in 1999 it became the official opposition. Eight years later it formed a minority government under Alex Salmond. And four years after that, with Salmond as First Minister and promising a vote on independence, it won an outright majority.

And now the referendum.

It is, in all essentials, the work of the driven, solitary, charismatic Scottish leader. And what lessons did he take away from what he had learned about Quebec referendums?

Above all, it would seem, don’t do it their way.

First, there's the question. Unlike the Quebec referendum, it is short and straightforward: Should Scotland be an independent country? There’s no hypothetical sovereignty-association or offer of a new political and economic partnership on the ballot. No confusion and no hostages to fortune that opponents of independence could use to attack the question and the project.

When Quebec premier Pauline Marois travelled to Scotland in 2013, Alex Salmond held a low-profile meeting with her and there was no joint press conference. (Chris Watt/Reuters)

Instead, Salmond has spent his campaign offering his own unofficial sovereignty-association scenario, saying Scotland can still have the Queen, the pound and a currency union with the rest of Britain. No problem, he says with a smile; the politicians in London may reject that now but they’ll soon have to agree.

He gets away with this because, in Canadian terms, he’s a combination of René Lévesque – the charming orator and prophet – and Jacques Parizeau – the economics expert. Salmond studied economics and, before entering politics, worked as an economist at a major bank. Invoking his expertise, he dismisses criticism of his vision as uninformed or cheaply political.

Next, the big tent approach. In 1995 Salmond was particularly struck by Parizeau’s bitter comment about money and ethnic votes, and the Parti Québécois’ appeal to French Canadian nationalism. The SNP has opted for the opposite approach, reaching out to all minorities. I remember an SNP conference a few years ago where ‘Scottish Asians for SNP’ were much in evidence.

Polls suggest the outcome of the independence vote will be close, and several hundred thousand voters who have yet to make up their minds could determine whether Scotland leaves its 307-year-old union with England. (Lesley Martin/Associated Press)

And Salmond has gone out of his way not to be associated with the Parti Québécois. When PQ premier Pauline Marois showed up in Scotland in 2013, he made sure their meeting was a hole-in-the-corner affair with no joint press conference. Salmond actually refused an offer from the PQ to share the results of its referendum experiences.

Like many lucky generals, Salmond also profited enormously from the complacency of his adversaries. While he barnstormed around his political backyard with his vision of Scotland as a Gaelic Norway sitting on a vast and profitable lake of oil, the British leadership in London slept, much like the federalist camp in 1995. They were convinced that independence was a balloon that would be punctured on voting day.

And like Jean Chrétien and the federalists 19 years ago, London’s leaders have spent the last days of the campaign in a panic. They raced up to Scotland, promising much more power to the restive nation, as the polls suddenly revealed the race was neck-and-neck.

The fact there’s a race at all is due to Salmond’s vision and drive. In Scotland 19 years ago I thought the charismatic British MP quizzing me forensically about Quebec was utterly obsessed with a pipedream.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.