Brian Wilson: Why Quebec finally saw the light

The margin against Quebec independence - narrow in the  1995 referendum ' is now wide. Picture: Andr� Pichette/AFP
The margin against Quebec independence - narrow in the 1995 referendum ' is now wide. Picture: Andr� Pichette/AFP
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The Canadian province’s decision not to hold another referendum has profound lessons for Scotland, says Brian Wilson

In 1995, the people of Quebec voted by less than one per cent to avoid secession from Canada. Last week, they voted overwhelmingly not to go through the whole rigmarole again by inflicting a crushing defeat on the separatist party which was proposing another referendum.

The analogy with our own situation is highly relevant. For supporters of independence, their perennial, unspoken motto is that they only have to win once. There is no such thing as “giving it a shot”, on the basis of sale and return.

There would be no opportunity to think again, as the Quebecois have clearly done. If that one per cent had tipped the other way, the huge majority against independence which now exists would be wasting their time saying so. They would just have been left to count the cost or ship out.

That is the winner-take-all nature of an independence referendum, so long as the winners are the advocates of secession. If they lose, they will undoubtedly try again. But by then, the offer will be less novel and emotive than first time round.

Eighteen years is a sufficient time to test the claims that everything good would continue as before. Much the same assertions were made there as here – an independent Quebec would carry on using the Canadian dollar, there would be a free trade agreement with Canada, and so on, none of them ever assented to by Ottawa any more than by Westminster.

Like Scotland in the UK, Quebec has a more elderly population and a higher dependency on welfare benefits. The reality has had plenty time to soak in that an independent Quebec would start off with massive debt while immediately losing the benefit of public expenditure cross-subsidy within Canada.

On currency, just take out Quebec and substitute Scotland. Professor Christopher Ragan of McGill University wrote this week: “It could continue using the Canadian dollar but it would then have no monetary policy with which to stabilise its economy – and it is delusional to think an independent Quebec would play any role whatsoever in setting the Bank of Canada’s policy.”

A good word, “delusional”, and it is exactly the adjective Scotland is being asked to vote for on so many fronts which assume that the state we had walked out on would cheerfully behave in Scotland’s interests. Quebec, with time to think about the delusional nature of that proposition, has voted accordingly.

Quebec has suffered from two decades of constitutional uncertainty, causing droves of companies to leave and stunting inward investment. I think there is already more of that going on here than is admitted. Certainly, if the First Minister’s prize announcement from New York this week is anything to go by, there isn’t much inward investment to blow about.

For the First Minister of Scotland to seek laps of honour for paying £1.2 million in Regional Selective Assistance in order to expand the presence of a company which collects debts from the distressed clients of pay-day lenders is embarrassingly thin gruel. Indeed, I seriously question whether they should even be eligible for Regional Selective Assistance.

The rules are clear: “You must be able to demonstrate that your project needs RSA to proceed as planned … RSA will not be paid if we believe the project will proceed anyway”. The absolute certainty is that people who lend money at exorbitant interest rates will always require enforcers to pursue their unfortunate creditors. So on what grounds was it concluded that this expansion of the Scottish debt-collection industry would not “proceed anyway”?

One sector in which I am sure investment decisions are on hold is energy, for reasons articulated by the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, this week. At present Scotland gets 28 per cent of the subsidy for renewable energy paid for by consumers throughout the UK while accounting for ten per cent of sales. It is a system I helped put in place based on a single state, a single market and a joined-up infrastructure. Break up the first two and it makes no sense.

Protestations that the rUK would be delighted to carry on subsidising expensive Scottish renewables comes into the “delusional” category. Why would they if they could get low carbon electricity from somewhere cheaper and nearer, like France? The immediate victims of the investment freeze include the three Scottish island groups which need that UK-wide consumer subsidy to underpin the huge investments which their hopes for renewables require.

Sadly, we don’t have 18 years for these truths to be proven. Every assertion, however delusional, is based on getting the independence case through. The consequences are not the concern of those who drive it because their motivation is not primarily economic or social or progressive, but simply independence. It’s other people’s jobs, pensions and children’s futures they are playing with, as the Quebecois had time to discover.

And then we have the siren voice of Nicola Sturgeon with her same old gramophone record which, as it happens, the Quebecois separatists also played, though it probably sounded marginally better in French. Labour voters, she insists, are to vote for independence in order to “reclaim” their party, rather than (as is actually the case) to destroy it.

Ms Sturgeon has spent her political life denying and denigrating Labour’s achievements.. Her stated ambition is to lead her own political party, the SNP, from which vantage point she would continue to attack everything Labour stands for and has delivered. Her solicitous concern for the soul of Labour seems curious.

I do not expect her to have any interest in the fate of working people and their families in Corby, Newcastle or Liverpool who would find themselves consigned to permanent Tory rule. The problem is that this neighbouring right-wing state would determine the parameters Scotland lived within on everything from the economy to immigration – but with no Scottish input into decision-making.

“Delusional” scarcely seems to do justice to her offer. But at least the Scottish debt collection industry would be guaranteed a booming future while the unfortunate individuals who were enticed by her blandishments would be left to protest: “Ah didnae ken, ah didnae ken.” Fortunately, their Quebecois counterparts had time to respond: “Je connais maintenant”.