With the September 18th voting day fast approaching, the BBC recently published a piece on what Scotland can learn from Québec’s experience with referendums on sovereignty. I would like to put the shoe on the other foot and look at what Québec can learn from the Scots. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: Ask not what Scotland can learn from Québec, ask what Québec can learn from Scotland.
In the once and still Canadian province of Québec we have voted in two referendums (that used to be referenda, but things change) on the issue of Québec seeking independence from Canada: once in 1980 and then again in 1995. The outcome on both occasions was the rejection of separation from Canada. In the first vote the result was a clear 60/40 majority while in 1995 it was a squeaker, almost a dead-heat.
The losses did not eradicate the sovereignty movement as some would have hoped, but may have set it back a wee bit. It is my belief that there will always be a group of Québécois for whom the goal of an independent Québec state will forever remain a dream, if not a reality. The political parties that claim to represent the sovereigntists come and go with varying degrees of electoral success, and the pendulum of public support continues to sway as the years pass. But in the hearts of a number of Québécois the goal remains, and always will. I wonder what these folks in Québec can learn from Scotland that may change things in the next referendum.
Were I to sum up my opinion in a word, it would be legitimacy. That a group of people strives to democratically seek citizen support to secede from a greater whole is, all things being equal, perfectly legitimate. It’s how they go about arriving at the decision that can become blurred. Are all things equal? If the means of attaining ballot box support for the goal of sovereignty relies on underhanded political games, the option itself becomes tainted. It is not an election, the results of which can be altered in a subsequent vote, it is a referendum, a plebiscite. The use of political chicanery to achieve a positive referendum outcome jeopardizes the legitimacy of the option.
In 1980 the question put to Québec citizens wasn’t a straightforward ‘yes or no’ regarding the separation of Québec from Canada, but rather a 106 word explanation of a concept oxymoronically called Sovereignty-Association. It was an attempt to allay fears that federal pensions, passports and finances, military installations and bridges, would be lost in the case of separation. An attempt to sell the proverbial having your cake and eating it too concept. It didn’t work. In 1995 a 43 word question was posed that probably still has a few people shaking their heads, yet the leaders on the sovereignist side were willing to jump on a victory regardless.
In Scotland people will vote on a simple six word question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”. No obfuscation, no ‘yes but not really’ concept. Straightforward, clear and therefore legitimate. I have always believed that were I to be one of that core group of Québécois who have a vision of a sovereign nation, for whom separation from Canada would be an honorable move, I would be disgusted to think that evidently my dream has to be couched in confusion and political trickery to gain acceptance.
My hope for all those who will vote on September 18th in Scotland is that whatever the outcome, it will clearly reflect the informed wishes of a majority of voters.