The wording of a referendum is crucial but the experience of Canada and Quebec suggests that a satisfactory formulation is hard to reach, writes Richard Simeon
What is the question? This is now vigorously debated between the Westminster government and the SNP in Edinburgh – just as it was in Canada in 1995 when the sovereignist Parti Québécois (PQ) sought the independence of largely French-speaking Quebec from the Canadian federation.
In Canada, as in Scotland, both sides realised that how the referendum question was worded was critical. Each sought to frame a question that would enlist the broadest support.
Each also realised that Canada/Quebec, as with UK/Scotland, embodied long-standing relationships that would not easily be broken, and that mutual attachments remained strong.
So what are the alternatives to be put to voters? Is it the status quo versus straight-up separation or secession?
Or is there the possibility of a middle position – “devolution max” in Scotland or some form of revised federalism in Canada?
The sovereignist PQ, first elected in 1976, proposed its first independence referendum in 1980. The question was soft: would Quebecers give the Quebec government the “mandate” to “negotiate” a new relationship with Canada to be entitled “sovereignty association?”
There would be continuing economic and political links between the two new entities, though these were not fully spelled out.
This was, if you like, “separation lite”. As with the SNP today, the Quebec sovereignists were anxious to reassure citizens that independence would not mean radical change in all aspects of their lives. The SNP program has continued association or links with the UK even greater than those suggested by the PQ with the same purpose in mind.
That first Quebec referendum was lost decisively, but there was a possibility that a majority of Francophones had voted yes.
The PQ tried again in 1995. This time the call was for sovereignty with a new “partnership” with Canada, also not clearly defined. But how would such a partnership between two now separate entities be conducted given their differences in population and wealth?
This time the sovereignists came within a hair’s breadth of victory, losing by only a few thousand votes in what was a very high turnout.
But two debates were critical: How high should the bar be for a successful outcome? Quebec claimed that 50 per cent plus one an acceptable democratic criterion – that was all that was needed to set the secession process in motion.
Critics argued that fundamental constitutional change like this almost always requires some form of super-majority. But there was no consensus on what that might be in this context.
More divisive was the question of “clarity”, a debate that is also mirrored in the UK today.
Federal leaders in Ottawa argued that any question predicated on continued “association” or “partnership” was dishonest and manipulative, encouraging Quebecers to believe that they could have their cake and eat it too.
Moreover, in offering Quebecers “association” or “partnership”, the sovereignists were promising something that they could not deliver without the consent of the rest of the country – which was by no means a certainty then, nor would it be today in either country.
Federalists argued that by voting yes, Quebecers could not assume that anything would be the same – passports, currency, membership in the North American Free Trade Area, and so on. Just like the debate in Scotland today.
The real choice, they said, was between outright separatism and some undefined reform of the status quo. This was a Rubicon; you were on one side or the other, separatist or federalist; there was no middle ground.
Ottawa followed up with the Clarity Act, which would allow the federal parliament to decide whether any future Quebec referendum was fair and the question “clear”.
Quebec responded with its own legislation asserting its absolute right to call a referendum on any question – while restating that it considered 50 per cent plus one to be a sufficient majority.
Ottawa then referred the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada: does a province have the right to secede from Canada either under domestic or international law?
No, said the court – Quebec is not an oppressed minority under international law; and the Canadian constitution is silent on the question of secession.
But then came the kicker: if a province were to vote for secession with a clear majority, then the other governments in Canada would have a constitutional responsibility to negotiate the matter. The court endowed Canada with a secession clause.
The courts are unlikely to play such a central role in the UK. But the key issue remains: how to frame the question in a way that respect democratic values?
In Canada, much survey evidence shows that only small minorities support either the status quo or outright sovereignty. The vast majority of Quebecers opt for something in the middle – for “sovereignty association”, or “renewed federalism”, and with much movement back and forth between these two positions. For them, this is not a Rubicon, but a stream relatively easily crossed.
The data also show that while many Quebecers’ primary identity is with Quebec, they retain strong attachments to Canada.
So, why would the political process present voters with options which they knew the vast majority of voters rejected – and fail to present them with options which they knew voters did support?
There is a failure of democracy here. And so in Scotland. The polls tell us that small minorities are straight-up unionists; that most Scots retain a British identity; that the SNP’s version of “sovereignty with association” is preferable; and that some version of devolution max is their preference.
Unlike Scotland, where a potential middle option on the referendum ballot has been seriously discussed, there was little such debate in Canada. Yet it is unlikely to be approved in the UK, despite the obvious appeal to voters in both countries.
Yes, all the middle positions are complex, messy, and no doubt difficult to negotiate. But in Canada, and in Scotland, let no one believe that negotiating secession would be any easier, and nor is the status quo easy to manage.
Finally, there is much to be said for some prior agreement on the rules of the referendum game, and on the procedures to be followed after the result. Canadians did not agree on the former; and were woefully unprepared for how to react in the event of a Yes vote in the Quebec referendum.
The price for such confusion and uncertainty about employees, assets, debts, social policies and the like could have been very high.
The same could equally be said of Scotland and the UK – the broader the discussion both among governments and in civil society prior to the coming referendum, both abut the question and about what might come afterwards, the better the chances of a peacefully negotiated outcome.
• Richard Simeon is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Law, at the University of Toronto