The Conservative former MEP Struan Stevenson has penned an article for the Herald today in which he urges a “Canada style” solution to the independence debate. Canada style solutions are very much in vogue amongst Tories these days, possibly because they allow them to indulge in their obsession with all things North American while disguising their party’s essential trumpiness. But then what do you really expect from the British Conservatives, which isn’t so much a political party as it is an injury in search of a brain.
What Struan really means by a Canadian style solution to the independence debate is for the people of Scotland to stop voting SNP and for all this horrid Scottish nationalism to go away. The pro-sovereignty Parti québécois formed a majority government in Quebec between 1976 and 1985, and again between 1995 and 2003. Following the Quebec generation election of 2018 the party’s share of seats in the Quebec legislature collapsed to just 10 out of the total of 125.
However the Quebec legislature is still overwhelmingly dominated by parties which define themselves as nationalist or sovereigntist – which is the term generally used in Canadian politics to describe those who support independence for Quebec. By far the largest party in the Quebec parliament is now the Coalition Avenir Québec, a right wing populist party which defines itself as Quebec nationalist, but which is not in favour of a third referendum on independence. The goal of the CAQ is to strengthen the rights and powers of Quebec within Canada. CAQ has 79 of the seats in the Quebec parliament. The CAQ has been very successful in appealing to the conservative element within Quebec society, while campaigning strongly to defend the French language, the distinct francophone culture of Quebec, and for greater powers for Quebec within Canada.
Another pro-independence party, the social democratic Québec solidaire, also has 10 seats in the Quebec parliament. The party was set up to unify the various strands of enivornmentalist, left wing and social democratic support for an independent Quebec.
In total 99 of the 125 seats in the Quebec parliament are held by parties which either support independence, or which regard themselves as Quebec nationalist parties operating within a Canadian framework. The question of Quebec nationalism hasn’t gone away, despite Struan Stevenson’s fond wish for a Canada style solution to the Scottish debate.
There are certainly lessons for the SNP to learn from the experience of the Parti québécois. The real reason that the party suffered such a loss in its representation was because it shifted to the right during the early years of this century, leading to a split within the party as its left wing could no longer support it, leaving in order to found Québec solidaire. This led to the Parti québécois being squeezed between the left wing sovereigntist movement and the right wing Action démocratique du Québec – one of the precursors to Coalition Avenir Québec – which campaigned for greater autonomy for Quebec within Canada and which successfully pitched for soft sovereigntists and right wing voters. The lesson for the SNP is not to take its base for granted and to ensure that it continues to provide a political home for all strands of Scottish pro-independence thought.
A key difference between the Quebec political scene and the Scottish one is that the parties which successfully squeezed the Parti québécois were all parties founded, led, and controlled within Quebec, not branches of Canadian wide parties. A Scottish Conservative branch office of the English Nationalist Brexit Party has no chance at all of repeating the same trick. Sorry, not sorry, to quote Adam Tomkins.
There are some other very significant differences between the situation in Quebec and Canada compared to that of Scotland and the UK which mean that Struan’s “Canada style” solution is not going to happen in Scotland. And the reason for that rests very squarely with Struan’s party and with the other anti-independence parties in Scotland and their bosses in Westminster. If Struan really wants to see the SNP disappear as a party of government as the Parti québécois has declined in Quebec, then perhaps he ought to take a long hard look at the differences between the way that the Canadian Federal Government handled Quebec’s aspirations to independence and the way in which the UK government has treated Scotland.
Following the Quebec independence referendum of 1982, the Canadian government introduced substantial changes to the Canadian constitution in an attempt to meet the concerns of the Quebecois. The status and rights of French speakers were protected, and the rights of provincial governments were strengthened. Quebec was giving significant new powers, including powers over immigration – Tories take note. Following the second independence referendum in 1995, Quebec was recognised as a distinct society within Canada. Provincial rights were further strengthened, giving Quebec a de facto veto over future constitutional changes.
Compare and contrast with how the Conservative party in the UK has treated Scotland. Following the referendum of 2014, the promises made to Scotland by the British parties were not kept. Scotland was promised that within three years we’d be living in a country which enjoyed the nearest thing possible to federalism in a state where one constituent nation made up 85% of the population. We were promised that the powers of the Scottish Parliament would be enshrined in law and would be placed beyond the ability of any Westminster government to alter them without the express consent of Holyrood. We were told that the only way in which Scotland could remain a member of the EU was by voting against independence. So how did all that work out then?
The immediate response of the British Government following the referendum was for David Cameron to stand on the steps of Downing Street and announce it had really been about England all along. Instead of federalism we got powers over roadsigns and some limited tax powers which David Mundell openly boasted were a trap for the SNP. We got English Votes for English Laws and the reduction of the powers of Scottish MPs within Westminster. Instead of the powers of Holyrood being enshrined in law we got a British government which secured a supreme court ruling that it could unilaterally alter the devolution settlement as it saw fit, and which has used Brexit as an excuse to claw powers back from Holyrood. Instead of remaining a part of the EU Scotland has been ripped out, and has been given zero input or influence into the form that Brexit takes.
Struan Stevenson’s argument falls apart because his own party has failed dismally to even pretend to meet Scotland half way. Where Canada made attempts to reassure the soft-sovereigntists and to meet at least some of the demands of those seeking greater power for Quebec, the British state has treated Scotland with contempt, as a rebellious province which has been politically defeated and whose concerns can be ignored.
If Struan Stevenson wants a Canada style solution to the Scottish independence debate, then perhaps he ought to focus less on the SNP and start with the shortcomings of his own party. But then that would mean treating Scotland with respect, giving Scotland powers over immigration, and giving Scotland a de facto veto on constitutional changes in the UK. That’s never going to happen. Since the UK is unwilling and unable to accommodate Scotland, the demand for independence is not going to go away. Sorry, not sorry, Struan.
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