Friday, September 19, 2014


Nothing is certain in life: we all generally subscribe to this bromide. But certain things can be predicted with some confidence, based on past experience. Now that the votes in the Scottish independence referendum have been counted, and Scotland has voted quite clearly to remain in the United Kingdom, some things are bound to happen.

Britain can learn from the Canadian experience. In recent times, the Province of Quebec has gone down the same path as Scotland: the most recent referendum, in 1995, saw the sovereignty movement lose by the narrowest of margins, approximately 51% to 49%. Quebec is still in Canada, but there are some truths that Britain must learn from.

First, it would be wrong for Britain to assume that the independence movement in Scotland is finished. Far from it. The tally from last night reveals that 1.6 million Scots voted for independence. That's 45% of the total. Further, the concentration of Yes votes around the Glasgow area indicates that there is a base for the independence movement to work from. Those who voted in favour of independence were willing to take a chance on a risky venture of which nobody knows the outcome. The 55% who voted to remain in the UK may have done so out of loyalty to the crown, the flag, and the union: or they may have done so out of uncertainty how the future independence would unfold. As Scots get used to the idea of a possible independent Scotland, they may well put these fears aside. Quebec soundly rejected sovereignty in the first referendum in 1980 by approximately 60% to 40%, but the 1995 referendum, as described above, was much closer.

Second, and related to the first point, the genie is very much out of the bottle. Britain can never go back to the comfortable, somewhat complacent nation-state is was prior to this referendum. Independence has been discussed for years. I remember the time that Lou and I travelled around Scotland in 1992. We ended up in a pub ( imagine that!) in Edinborough on a Friday night. The pub was crowded with the after work business folks. We got talking to a couple of well dressed business men and they were fascinated with the Canada/Quebec situation. When I broached the topic of possible Scottish independence, they both smiled and one of them said "It's a beautiful dream." These men were not wide-eyed radicals. Even back then, the thought of independence was an ideal worth striving for, but not thought to be really possible. Look at Scotland now. The past is gone forever.

Third, in the last few days leading up to the vote, a nervous No side brought out everything they had to try to keep Scotland in the union. Famously, the three main party leaders made a "Vow" to the Scots promising changes. That reminded me of the years after the first Quebec referendum when Brian Mulroney, to his credit, tried to bring Quebec into the Canadian constitution with the Meech Lake Accord. Mulroney, a Quebecker, knew that the first referendum meant that significant changes were necessary to keep separatism silent permanently, and he tried to do the right thing. Whether the accord was a good deal or not, historians will have to judge. The fact is, he tried to bring the changes Quebec wanted, and the rest of Canada said "no" to those changes. The result is that separatism has never really died in Quebec, and a second referendum followed that almost won. To this day, Quebec remains outside the Canadian constitution.

I bring this up to warn Britons that, if the government in Westminster does not live up to its famous "Vow", Scotland will try again. It has nothing to lose by doing so. The idea is tantalizing to many Scots. There are and have been grievances between Scotland and Westminster for decades. If Westminster comes through, then Scotland may not go ahead with a second referendum. But the changes for Britain will be staggering. Not only will Scotland get more powers from Westminster, the national government will have to do the same for Wales and Northern Ireland. And what of England? Will there be an English parliament with devolved powers? Why would England be content to continue to have important issues affecting it decided by politicians from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while those lands can make their own decisions? Britain may have to seriously examine the possibility of becoming a federal state, similar to Canada or Australia, and de-centralize power from London. And, if that happens, an actual written constitution will be necessary, the first in British history.

Britain would be well-advised to pay attention to the Canadian experience. In this sense, the mother will have to learn from her daughters.

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