Peter Jones: Identity politics by popular demand

The success of Quebec’s pro-sovereignty party in the recent election contains some pointers for the SNP, writes Peter Jones

The success of Quebec’s pro-sovereignty party in the recent election contains some pointers for the SNP, writes Peter Jones

Arriving in the western Canadian city of Calgary in Alberta, you are immediately struck by how all the notices at the airport are all bi-lingual – English and French. So is all product packaging in the shops, and all official leaflets, including tourist literature. Since fewer than 2 per cent of Alberta’s 3.6 million people are native French speakers (fewer than native Chinese, German or aboriginal First Nation language speakers), you have to ask why. The answer is that it symbolises the rest of Canada’s efforts to keep mainly Francophone Québec in the Canadian federation.

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And not just that. It also symbolises the role that identity politics has come to play in Canada. Identity politics, indeed, were to the fore in the nationalist Parti Québecois’s return to power (albeit in minority) in the recent Québec provincial election. Since the SNP have close links with the PQ and would like to see identity play a much bigger role in Scottish politics, it is useful to ask what lessons Scottish Nationalists might be learning from Québec.

From one perspective, the PQ’s return to power was remarkable. It was humiliated in the 2007 elections, coming third. Things improved in 2008, but it still finished far behind the federalist Liberal Party. Since then, the party has been troubled by a series of splits and defections, resulting in two rival nationalist parties also contesting this month’s elections.

But from another perspective, it was less surprising. Liberal premier Jean Charest’s government has been beset by corruption allegations, mainly involving construction firm kick-back payments to politicians. For the last three months, students had been marching and protesting against increases in university tuition fees. Over the last year, a consistent 70 per cent of Quebécers said they were dissatisfied with him.

So the election should have been a pushover for the PQ. They, however, also had a problem. After defeats in independence (or sovereignty in PQ-speak) referendums in 1980 and 1995 (by a hair’s breadth) and as the global economic crisis hit in 2008, there is little enthusiasm in Québec for another one. Re-booting the economy is voters’ priority. Pauline Marois, elected PQ leader in 2007, opted to pursue identity politics instead. Québec, of course, differs mightily from Scotland in that it has the huge cultural identifier of the French language. Some 80 per cent of Québecers claim French as their first language, and for 95 per cent it is the everyday language. It is also the only official language of the provincial government.

Language and identity – emphasising the French and Catholic nature of Quebec – have been Ms Marois’ main political tools right from the start of her leadership. She plans to introduce a citizenship law which will require all new public servants and applicants for public and political office to prove their proficiency in French. Compulsory French language use will be extended to presently exempted companies (all 200,000 of them) employing fewer than 50 people. French-speakers and non-French speaking immigrants are to be banned from attending the province’s finishing schools, known as CEGEPs, which hone professional proficiencies in English.

Some of this is controversial as it constrains the liberty of the individual to speak, live, and work in whatever language is their heritage. But that controversy pales in comparison to Ms Marois’ proposed secular law. This will ban public servants from wearing religious symbols such as the hijab or the turban, but will permit a crucifix on a chain provided it is discreet.

The argument about this is ferocious. The PQ insists that it is about not apologising for who Québecers are, and conserving their language, culture, institutions and values. Opponents believe it will provoke racism by suggesting that if it is alright to discriminate against certain public servants, it will be alright to discriminate against anyone wearing a hijab or turban.

If you suspect that debate about immigration is at the heart of this, you would be right. The PQ played on Francophone fears that English-speaking immigrants, arriving in what is effectively a bilingual society, see no need to learn French and hence that everything distinctively Québecois is being eroded. Less subtly, as in all recession-hit societies, there are fears of immigrants taking jobs from the natives. This is wrong, says the PQ, which maintains that it welcomes immigrants provided they play by the rulebook. Adoption by other countries, including the UK, of milder but similar tests for immigrants, is cited in support.

Nevertheless, it seems that liberal-minded dislike of these politics played a part in preventing total Liberal party collapse. Now, I am certainly not saying that the SNP is heading in the same direction as the PQ. I fully agree that the SNP is proudly multi-cultural and would abhor much of the PQ’s so-called secular and citizenship programme and its pretty clear anti-immigrant implications. But what dawned on me, as I watched the election and its aftermath from Alberta, was how the SNP is deploying a subtler, and arguably more sophisticated, identity politics.

A good example is the campaign Alex Salmond waged at the start of this current term of office against the UK Supreme Court. Its decision which caused a re-trial of the Arlene Fraser murder case was argued to be a monstrous interference in Scots criminal law, where the Supreme Court had no right to tread. It does not matter that the case for that viewpoint was thin, or that Mr Salmond was as much criticised as he was praised for that stance. What matters is that the distinctiveness of Scots law was brought to public attention, thus heightening the sense of distinct Scottish identity. In the same way, the SNP now argues the National Health Service, a British creation, is being mutated into a distinct Scottish institution which is now under threat as a result of changes south of the Border.

It doesn’t much matter whether the SNP wins or loses these arguments. What matters is that another brick is added to the construction of a Scottish identity which will, the SNP hope, eventually lead to the edifice of independence.

This is clever politics, all the more so because the Unionist parties are completely hopeless at this game, barely realising it is going on, never mind having the intellectual tools to deal with it. And as Québec premier-designate Pauline Marois showed, it can, up to a point, be effective.