15 Sep 2014

Canada becomes interesting! Thanks to Scotland's #indyref

As a rule, the UK does not take much notice of Canada – so it comes as a pleasant surprise that for once, thanks to the Scottish referendum, recent Canadian history is now being discussed.

As a rule, the UK does not take much notice of Canada. If fact, they ought to put up a sign at Heathrow arrivals saying, ‘not particularly interested in Canadians here’.  It would save a bit of heartache.

I have experienced it first-hand. The first time I left Canada on a UK-bound flight , I thought I was “coming home” – after all, both countries have plenty in common. Canada deploys the Queen as head of state and borrows the Westminster-style parliamentary system and England’s common-law. Plus, there is all that colonial history to chat about.


Upon my arrival I realized I had got it wrong. People kept asking me what part of ‘Canaydia’ I was from. Once in a while, the call went up for a skill-testing game of “name five famous Canadians” which was proof – if proof was needed – that Canada did not really register.

It comes as a pleasant surprise then to see recent Canadian political history being widely discussed in Briton. Analysts and others, seeking a guide to the Scottish referendum, have discovered in Canada’s existential crisis of the 1980’s and 1990’s a handy point of comparison.

The majority French-speaking province of Quebec held two votes on independence from the rest of Canada. In both polls, the “nons” beat “ouis” although the pro-Canada side only just squeaked it in the 1995 vote.

Nevertheless, Quebec’s flirtation with separation has changed Canadian politics and offers the UK much by means of example​.

First, the threat of separation never really ends. In Quebec, the separatist ‘Parti Quebecois’ is responsible for the first two referendums. After the 1995 poll, support for sovereignty fell away but if popular opinion swings back, the party will hold a third.

Canadians call it the ‘neverendum’.

Likewise in Scotland, the threat of another vote will hang over all dealings between the SNP and Westminster even if Alex Salmond says Thursday’s vote is a “once in a lifetime event.”

Second, the Quebec question was used by the leaders of all Canadian provinces to demand more powers from the federal government. Provincial premiers said they wanted to bringing power “closer to the people” while critics called it an exercise in “empire-building”.

In the event of negotiations over “devolution-max” in Scotland (or any other form of devolution), expect the SNP to bargain hard.

Third, party loyalties go out the window. In Canada regional politicians frequently ‘knock the feds’ (or the central government) because it is politically expedient to do so. It does not matter if, say, the Liberal Party is in charge of both the provincial and the federal government.

In the same way, expect a Labour government in Scotland to aggressively ‘protect’ Scotland’s interests, even if Labour is in power at Westminster.

Fourth, businesses and investors will move, regardless of what happens in the referendum. Canada’s biggest companies reacted to the threat of Quebec independence by heading down the highway to neighbouring Ontario.

They thought the political uncertainty was bad for business. If the Canadian example holds true in Scotland, companies and prospective investors have already booked the moving vans.

Fifth, expect a vigorous discussion after the Scottish referendum about the sort of majority that is required to break away from the United Kingdom.

In Canada, the federal government passed a law after the 1995 poll, saying it was too big a decision to be decided by 50 per cent plus one (a simple majority). Instead, independence had to be approved by a ‘clear majority’ – although that has never been accepted by the Parti Quebecois.

So there you have it. Canada has made itself useful, which is a whole lot better than being ignored.

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