Independence is an issue that just won’t go away

THE constitutional futures of Scotland and Quebec are a hot topic despite their referendums, writes Michael Keating

Supporters of a No vote in Quebecs 1995 independence referendum campaign take part in a rally in Montreal. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of a No vote in Quebecs 1995 independence referendum campaign take part in a rally in Montreal. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of a No vote in Quebecs 1995 independence referendum campaign take part in a rally in Montreal. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

September 18 marked the first anniversary of the Scottish independence referendum. October is the 20th anniversary of the last independence referendum in Quebec. While both events were intended to settle the question, at least for a lengthy period, the issue has lingered on.

Independence no longer means what it once did, the creation of a nation-state with complete control over its domestic and foreign policy choices. The 1995 referendum question in Quebec recognised this, proposing that Quebec become “sovereign” after having made an offer of partnership with the rest of Canada. The Scottish question was more straightforward, asking voters whether Scotland should become an independent country, but its meaning was disputed. While the No side said independence would dissolve all ties, the Yes side argued that Scotland shared six unions with the UK – political, monarchical, monetary, defence, European and social. Independence would dissolve the first but leave the others intact. The No side in the famous “Vow” promised further powers. So while the choice appeared to be stark, both sides were edging towards the middle ground, where most of the electors are to be found.

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This middle is ill-defined and variously named – “devo-max”, “home rule”, “renewed federalism”. In all its guises, it recognises that sovereignty is not something you either have or lack, but rather a set of relationships with other nations and transnational bodies like the European Union, the North American Free Trade Area and the global market place.

Many of the issues which this throws up are the same in Canada and the UK, as became clear at a recent conference between the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Society of Canada. In both cases, the welfare state is under challenge and both Quebec and Scotland have sought to construct a distinct approach to welfare, with more emphasis on universal services. Their scope to do so is limited by the powers they possess but also by the practical and political difficulties in raising the taxes to finance it. Quebec has more tax-raising capacity than Scotland, but the new powers coming to Scotland will force it to make critical and difficult decisions. Will the Scots be prepared to pay higher taxes to save their public services? Evidence suggests that they are very cautious about practical differences in taxes and services on either side of the Border, although the people of Quebec are more familiar with this.

An important factor in sustaining the Union in Scotland has been the political parties, which have operated across Great Britain while not recognising historic differences. The Conservative Party largely collapsed in Scotland from the 1980s and now the Labour Party has followed suit so that there is no longer a British party system. There are lessons from Quebec, which has long had its own party system, separate from the parties operating at federal level.

Devolution and Europe have brought the courts into the business of politics, ruling on who does what and upholding human rights. In Canada, the judiciary is very active in shaping the settlement, but in the UK its role has been largely limited to matters arising under European Convention on Human Rights and the European Union. As the devolution settlement becomes more complex with the new powers currently going through parliament, judges may intervene more, as in Canada.

Referendums are now the way of settling constitutional arguments, whether on devolution, independence or the EU. They only work, however, if both sides accept the question, the rules and the outcome. There was no agreement in Quebec about the process or the question. A subsequent Canadian law sought to clarify the rules for a future referendum, but it was not accepted by the Quebec National Assembly. The Edinburgh Agreement secured an accord on the process in Scotland, but many Yes voters do not accept the result as definitive and many No voters were unhappy with the process.

All this shows that constitutional questions are not matters to be resolved once and for all. They need not monopolise political attention, but they are not likely to go away easily.

• Michael Keating is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a member of its International Committee. He is also Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change.