Yuan Yi Zhu is a research fellow at the University of Oxford.
Quebec is having a provincial election right now. Why should you, a British Conservative who have enough on your plate already, never mind what colonials do in their own countries, care?
Because support for Quebec separatist parties, who twice almost broke up my country, is hovering around 30 per cent, a historically low figure.
On current projections, they might get a tenth of the seats in the legislature; the Parti Québécois, which pioneered the 50-per-cent-plus-one formula for separation via referendum the UK has inexplicably chosen to adopt, might be wiped out entirely.
And you should care because that saviour of the world, Gordon Brown is writing a report on constitutional reform for the Labour Party, which might well get implemented, repeat all the mistakes Canada made, and break the Union apart.
I fully accept that Brown is a sincere Unionist; but Charles I was a very sincere believer in the divine right of kings, and look where it got him in terms of corporeal unity.
Brown’s report, not yet released but freshly leaked, contains all the old chestnuts one expects from middle-of-the-road unionist-cum-constitutional reformers. The Lords would be replaced with a “house of nations and regions”; devolved administrations would get yet more taxation powers.
England would not get a devolved legislature, but English local government bodies would get some new powers to “allow English regional devolution to grow over time”; there would be “constitutional” guarantees for social and economic rights. You get the idea.
But devolution begat more devolution, and nothing else. Devolution creates new political elites with a vested interest in accruing more power; it reduces the visibility of the central state to nothingness; it creates grievances in other parts of the country when done asymmetrically. The SNP has already rejected Brown’s proposals as insufficient; if implemented, they are bound to stroke English nationalist sentiment and see the Union threatened on new fronts.
In Canada, our politicians spent years after the first independence referendum in 1980 trying to reform the constitution along similar lines to Brown’s; to decentralize power to the provinces, create a bunch of new rights, and to nix Quebecois separatism in the process. The result were two constitutional reform packages which pleased no one and made everyone, in Quebec and outwith, angrier than they were already.
A second separation referendum followed, which the separatists lost by the narrowest of margins.
After the 1995 near-death experience, Canada’s political elites had a rethink. Grandiloquent plans for grand constitutional bargains were shelved (indeed, constitutional amendment became politically taboo) and politicians got down to business.
A key move was to enact the Clarity Act, a federal statute which rejected the idea that Quebec could declare independence on the basis of a referendum called by the provincial legislature (a wildcat referendum, if you will) with a 50-per-cent-plus-one majority.
Under the Act, the federal Parliament, and it alone, decides whether a referendum result is such that “a clear majority” of Quebecois have expressed support for separation, but also in answer to a sufficiently clear referendum question.
Separatists complained and even enacted retaliatory legislation, but it narrowed the separatists’ options. Complain as they might, they could not get around the fact that Quebec could only separate and gain international recognition if Canada allowed it. Unionists should not prematurely concede that the Scottish Parliament has any right to dictate the United Kingdom’s future, whether through a wildcat referendum or through the sort of concessions David Cameron made.
But the law is not all. States do not exist purely as matter of material fact; like our late Queen, they have to be seen to be believed. After the 1995 referendum, the Canadian federal government launched a massive “sponsorship program” designed to increase Canada’s visibility in Quebec by sticking maple leaf flags on everything that moved and to sponsor any event with a crowd.
If the feds paid for any of it, they would stick a flag on it; and if they didn’t pay for it they would cut a cheque and then stick a flag on it.
Today, the programme is far better remembered for the corruption which surrounded it; but the idea itself is entirely sound. Growing up in a heavily pro-independence part of Quebec, I could recall Canadian flags appearing in the most incongruous of setting. It was tacky, but it reminded people of the country in which they lived.
Walking through central Edinburgh more recently, I could barely spot any sign of the British state apart from the odd forlorn Union flag on a UK government building. If the British state is already de facto invisible, separation becomes far more thinkable, even natural. Some will complain that flag-waving is un-British. Well, the country could afford such a posture when it was the world’s hegemon. Today’s circumstances are rather different.
But what really made the difference in Quebec, and perhaps the trickiest part of it all for the UK to achieve, was the move away from separation, pro and con, as the province’s defining political cleavage.
Much of the credit goes to the current premier, François Legault, who abandoned separatism and instead founded a party which focused on the standard left-right cleavage. Meanwhile, he neutralized separatism by playing nationalist politics while ruling out any move toward separation. His reward was a majority government and possibly an even bigger majority on 3 October.
There is evidence some unionist politicians are beginning to understand this, as they adjust their messaging while Nicola Sturgeon’s list of domestic woes continually lengthens.
But to create the conditions necessary to such a realignment of Scottish politics, separation will have to stop being the central organizing principle of the Scottish political scene (which is why Sturgeon is so insistent on talking about it all the time). Enacting the Brown proposals will simply give her even more to talk about until the next referendum.
Ultimately, “just say no” remains the better unionist answer to her designs.