Scottish independence: Parallels with Quebec?

Following Quebec’s surprising rejection of the separatist Parti Québécois in April – their smallest share of the vote since 1970 – the question of whether we can draw a meaningful comparison to the current Scottish independence debate arises. The ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps are tight in the polls. Although those campaigning for independence were defeated with 59 per cent of the vote in Quebec’s 1980 referendum, their second attempt in 1995 was remarkably close – 50.6 to 49.4 per cent. As professor Charlie Jeffery of the University of Edinburgh remarked at a Social Market Foundation seminar last week, although many south of the Scottish border think the gap will be narrow but unionists will ultimately prevail, independence is still perceived as a realistic possibility in Scotland. Those 1995 results should be a reminder of just how tangibly close it can be.

However, does the situation in Scotland seem closer to the current situation in Quebec or to the one that prevailed ahead of their previous referenda? Some may have heard of the ‘dying federalist hypothesis,’ a popular theory drawn from the breakdown of support for independence (or ‘sovereignty’) by age group. Young people’s support for sovereignty was significantly stronger than that of the 35-54 and 55+ age groups in 1980, and support amongst the 18-34 year olds and 35-54 year olds (those who were in the youngest group in 1980) was very high in 1995. It was thus thought that as older people die, and if the young stay supportive of sovereignty as they grow older, then eventually there would be majority support amongst the population.

It seemed so at first, with support for sovereignty rising year on year after 1995, peaking in 2002. However, research by sociologist Claire Durand shows that support for sovereignty continued to decline. In 2014, it is now lowest amongst those 18-34, and relatively low across all ages. Why? Sociologists Maurice Pinard, Robert Bernier and Vincent Lemieux argue that the fight for separatism was a social movement, picked up by one generation and dropped by the next. Two factors have generally shaped support for sovereignty: feelings of attachment to Canada, and perceptions of ethnic inequality. With numerous measures taken over the past decade to enhance protections for the French language and to devolve greater control over the economy and immigration to the provincial level, many younger Quebecers feel that the province now has the capacity to achieve its own unique goals. It is no wonder that when Karl Péladeau, one of the PQ’s star candidates, declared he would bring Quebec to independence just a few short weeks before the election, party support plummeted.

Are there any comparisons to what’s going on in Scotland today? Given support for independence is pretty even amongst age groups, a ‘dying federalist hypothesis’ cannot be posited. The situation in Scotland seems to have more in common with Quebec today than Quebec in 1995 or 1980. However, while most Scots don’t want full independence, ‘Devo More’ is nonetheless strongly desired. The sense of appeasement and feeling of being able to achieve their own goals within the federal context is not shared in Scotland to the same extent as in Quebec. According to polls by the Future of the UK and Scotland programme, most Scots feel that they would be able to narrow the gap between rich and poor in an independent Scotland. The sense of efficacy is also stronger at the Scottish level than at the UK level. It is clear that even in the event of a No vote, the persistence of dissatisfaction with the system will continue.

However, the Barnett formula will be less politically resonant if there is a No vote as the Scotland Act 2012 is due to come into effect next year, giving the Scottish Parliament tax-adjusting powers. All of the unionist parties have also promised to further allocate tax powers in the event of a No vote, though there are divisions about which powers and the scale of powers to devolve. The issue of devolving further powers raises difficult constitutional questions, however, such as whether Scottish MPs should have the right to vote on tax policy that effects the rest of the UK. These questions can only be avoided for so long.

It is also worth mentioning the recent debate in the UK about greater devolution of power to cities and city regions. It is not just Scotland that is campaigning for more powers. Lessons can be learnt from Canada here, as we have a federal system, where power rests at multiple levels. The UK is unique; it is the most centralised system in the OECD, with various powers allocated to levels below Westminster in a non-uniform way. Calls for a federal UK have been made before, and the campaign for an English Parliament is nothing new either. Though city mayors were rejected in most places in 2012, where they were brought in, they have been well accepted. Perhaps the Scottish independence debate will finally move things along in the federal direction. We have already seen all of the mainstream parties have promised greater decentralisation ahead of the 2015 election. In any case, it is difficult to imagine the SNP going away as an important force in Scottish politics until the desire for Devo More is satiated. Only then can we envisage a direct parallel between Scotland and Quebec – a satisfied member of a federal system.

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