Scottish independence: Why Quebec's 1995 referendum shows nationalists a way forward – Kenny MacAskill MP

I was glancing at the book, The Morning After. A political ‘what if’, it asks key players what might have happened had the second Quebec referendum, held in 1995, endorsed sovereignty, rather than falling short by just 60,000 votes.

Yes supporters cheer during a speech by Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard in Montreal in 1995 (Picture: Andre Pichette/AFP via Getty Images)

As Scotland awaits Nicola Sturgeon’s mythical “gold-plated” second referendum bill, it’s relevant when she’s reduced to saying she’ll do everything she can, within her power, to try and achieve it. Meanwhile Westminster remains intransigent.

It’s of interest to Scotland as there was no Canadian sector 30 order equivalent giving approval for the referendum by federal authorities. Instead, after several years of constitutional impasse – sounds familiar, doesn’t it – Quebec’s premier and Parti Quebecois leader Jacques Parizeau used his election mandate and majority government in 1994 to call a referendum on sovereignty.

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The federal authorities neither agreed nor supported it and there were court challenges. Whilst the legal and constitutional situation’s different, what’s clear is that a consultative referendum was held. It was simply asking voters what they thought but wasn’t constitutionally binding. It’s something many in Scotland believe can apply here.

In Quebec voters were basically asked: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership?”

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Now we’ll never know what might have happened had Yes prevailed but the book gives some clues. Parizeau saw it as providing a mandate to push negotiations forward with the federal authorities and, if there was still an impasse, then using it as the basis for declaration of independence where he hoped for international support.

Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, himself a Quebecois Liberal, seemed intent on forcing another referendum where the wording would be different and he hoped he’d win.

Now, mandates aplenty there have been for Nicola Sturgeon. All her dillydallying has done is provide time for the unionist opposition to consider tactics, which are to boycott a referendum. That’s unlikely to have happened had she had the drive of Parizeau, especially post-Brexit.

Now though it causes difficulties, undermining legitimacy and, on a bad day, a vote could end up like a glorified opinion poll.

But referendums are still the best way for constitutional issues. What if a constitutional convention was held and Scotland’s elected representatives sought negotiations with Westminster on Scotland’s right to decide its own constitutional future? That could encompass those who seek a third way – in my book, the delusional federal option – but it would flush Westminster out on whether it was even possible and what it would be.

As constitutional logjam continues and impoverishment accelerates, it’s time to move things on. If unionists refused to cooperate, then it could trigger the necessity of a plebiscite election to break the impasse.

If it’s a “never referendum”, then an alternative democratic way must be found, for whatever way’s used, sovereignty must rest with the Scottish people.

To unionists who say the pro-sovereignty Quebeckers lost, just consider that polls show support for Scottish independence is higher than for Quebec sovereignty was before the 1995 vote – and Boris Johnson and any of his potential successors certainly aren’t Jean Chretien.

Kenny MacAskill is Alba Party MP for East Lothian

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