For those unawares, the people of Scotland vote on 18 September whether to remain part of the UK or to become independent. If there is a yes vote, the 300+ political union between England and Scotland will be no more. At least until Scotland becomes an EU member alongside the remnant UK…
Concomitantly I’ve been reading the rather excellent The Morning After (en français Confessions post-référendaires), Chantal Hébert’s collection of interviews with key players in the 1995 Québec referendum. Many in the media commenting on the Scottish vote are drawing parallels to Québec’s “neverendum”: over 30 years of intense political and social dissonance around “the nationalist question.
Except Scotland isn’t Québec. And the UK isn’t Canada.
Today’s modern Canada finds her roots in hundreds of indigenous nations who participated in large, complex economic and social networks before contact with Europeans. The indigenous presence in today’s Canada, in a literal sense, created the country: the word Canada has its root in Mohawk: kanata means village. With the establishment of New France and British North America, the region from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River to the shores of Lake Ontario formed what was called Canada. New France was a highly ordered, tenacious and colony long before it became part of British North America. Once integrated into the British Empire, the territory of Lower Canada kept its language (French), religion (Roman Catholicism) and civil law (French). Criminal law and governance followed the British traditions.
There were always nationalists in Lower Canada and periodic uprisings (peaceful and not) against being colonized by the British. Over time what evolved was an unequal system of elites—many of whom, though not all, were Anglophone and Protestant—and agrarian and urban working class that was francophone and Catholic. The Catholic Church was complicit in this system too. And so things rolled along for a few hundred years.
After World War Two, the baby boom generation in Québec experienced a similar trajectory as those in Europe and the US. Thousands flooded the universities, where many first experienced secular educations. With this came a conscientization about the politic and social structures of Québec, which remained stubbornly feudal and unequal. There was no shortage of racism on the part of anglophones in Québec either: “speak White” was a common admonish to francophones. It’s rather telling that one of the first texts to emerge from Québec’s Quiet Revolution translates to White Niggers of North America. From the mid 1960s onwards, Québec francophones galloped towards a secular, social democratic, identity as québécois/e (rather than French Canadians). Not all francophones, but many—eventually a large majority—aligned their existing nationalist identity with the emerging political movement.
In 1980 the first sovereigntist government of the Parti Québecois held a referendum on independent. The vote was 60% No. In 1995 they held a second referendum, but the question wasn’t about independence: it asked about “a new relationship” with the rest of Canada. That vote was much closer—51% No. But many voted not for independence, but a different political arrangement: which meant different things to different voters.
So there has not been a “neverendum”: two votes in two decades is hardly a perennial dynamic. When the question has been about independence the vote was a clear no. From Hébert’s books we also now know that two of the three leading campaigners in the 1995 Yes side were committed to a new relationship—not independence—and were working to rein in Jacques Parizeau, who wanted to use any Yes victory as a means to quickly declare independence.
The questions in both 1980 and 1995 were chosen unilaterally by the government of Québec: the rest of Canada had no say in what was asked. It is also important to note that Québec has never been independent as a political entity. It was dozens of First Nations, then part of New France, then British North America and finally a province of Canada.
Next week’s Scottish referendum represents something entirely different. Like 1980 it’s a clear question that really can’t be interpreted to mean anything except independence—yes or no? As well, the question, the date of the vote and the terms of the campaigns were agreed upon by the Scottish and British governments. All of the disagreement in the campaigns amounts to different interpretations of data, differences of opinion, or differences of priorities. Neither side can claim the referendum process itself is skewed. Totally different from the Québec referendums.
Unlike Québec, Scotland already is a country: the UK is a union between three countries (England, Scotland and Wales) plus assorted territories (Northern Ireland, various islands). Scotland was independent until 300 years ago; for a hundred years before that it shared a head of state (king or queen).
Whatever the people of Scotland decide, no one can reasonably grouse about the way in which this decision came about. The SNP campaigned on having a vote, they set the date with a couple of years’ notice, and they negotiated with Westminster about the plebiscite will be delivered.