Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Stakes Involved in The Scottish Choice

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With only a few days left for Scottish voters to decide about their future in or out of the United Kingdom, the international media hype around Scotland’s September 18 referendum on independence has intensified.  The fact that the “yes” side—supporting Scotland’s independence from the U.K.—has narrowed the gap with the “no” side in recent polls only adds to the drama.

The rather complacent British political and economic establishment is now showing serious concern about the potential of a “yes” victory.  On the other hand, pro-independence movements outside the U.K. appear enthused at the prospect of a “yes” victory on September 18.  Just recently, Catalans in Barcelona took to the streets over their own referendum on independence, scheduled for November 9.

In Québec, pro-independence emissaries from the Parti Québécois (PQ) and Bloc Québécois (BQ) have gone to Scotland in the closing days of the campaign, and are salivating at the possibility that the 307-year union between Britain and Scotland could come to an end.  Will a “yes” vote have direct repercussions for the independence movement in Québec?  What are the overall implications if the “yes” side wins in Scotland?

Québec separatists have fallen on hard times in recent years, as support for Québec independence is currently in the 30 percent to 35 percent range—and for the first time in over 30 years, it seems to have gained little momentum among the younger generation of voters.  So any “good” news on the independence front is welcome.

While there are similarities with the Québec referenda of 1980 and 1995 on independence (nationalism, umbrella YES-NO committees, tightening of the polls, large rallies), pro-independence militants in Québec omit the basic differences between the Scottish choice this week and the Québec choice of nearly 20 years ago. The clarity of the ballot question in Scotland and the binding nature of a Scottish “yes” vote are two key differences that make Scotland’s referendum distinct from the Québec referenda.

The Scottish referendum question only has 6 words: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”  Contrast this with the Québec question. In 1980, the question contained 117 words; in 1995, it contained 36 words.  In Québec, the proposition from the separatists involved a mandate to achieve independence, along with an offer to negotiate an economic association with the rest of Canada, and finally have all this ratified by a second referendum. The referendum exercise was consultative and not automatically binding. In Scotland, by contrast, the proposal is simple, immediate, and executory.

Following the closeness of Québec’s 1995 referendum results—where the “no” side won narrowly by 50.4 percent over the “yes” side’s 49.6 percent—Canada’s federal government asked the Supreme Court to decide about the clarity of the referendum question and determine what constituted a clear majority. (The federal government believed the 50 percent + 1 rule for a referendum was insufficient in the case of succession, asking, “Do you break up a country on one vote?”)  By 2000, following the Supreme Court ruling that Quebec must vote by a clear majority on a clear questions to negotiate the terms of its independence, the Canadian Parliament passed the Clarity Act, imposing a clear and shared understanding (between Québec and Canada) of the referendum question and the need for a majority that left no doubt about the will of the voters.

In response, the then-ruling Parti Québécois passed legislation disputing the provisions of the Clarity Act—but the latter is now the law of the land.  Whatever the result in Scotland on September 18, the outcome will have no direct implications for Québec.  Like it or not, Canada’s Clarity Act does.

For Scotland and Britain, the choice on September 18 is clear and binding.  A “yes” vote represents the end of the union, a “no” vote means continuing a rather successful and stable union with limited powers. 

While Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond wishes to maintain the British currency, there are no guarantees that this will happen, according to British political authorities.  An independent Scotland would then face another choice:  does it prefer to keep the British pound or adopt the euro?  However, in both cases, it will be a currency for Scotland without the benefit of a direct political union.  This could have implications directly on eventual relations between Britain and Scotland as well as on their respective economies.

So as the Scots contemplate their choice over the coming hours, it is obvious the world will be watching.  Pro-independence movements in other democracies are excited and hopeful that a Scotland “yes” vote will bring new energy to their efforts.   It is fair to argue that the result of September 18 vote will not put the British-Scottish question to rest.  A “yes” dramatically ends the status quo, but a “no” vote will likely begin a round of talks about the devolution of new powers to Scotland. 

The prospect of another referendum will remain as long as the separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) is in office.  We in Québec know this scenario too well—with two referenda behind us already, and the possibility of another should the PQ win office again. 

However, at the end of the day, the real implications of the Scottish referendum on September 18 will generally be limited to the United Kingdom and its internal politics, and may have with some short-term repercussions within a few other countries in the European Union, such as Spain.  Beyond this, not much more.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Quebec, Referendum, Scottish Independence
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