Scott Macnab: Lessons from the Quebec Neverendum?

The Neverendum divide between Quebec and the rest of Canada has hit the French speaking province financially. (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)
The Neverendum divide between Quebec and the rest of Canada has hit the French speaking province financially. (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)
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The SNP’s relationship with Quebec’s Nationalist movement has always been awkward, writes Scott Macnab

The former first minister was never slow to milk an occasion for all the publicity it was worth. Meetings with international leaders were normally accompanied by media conferences, TV interviews and the obligatory picture calls.

Not this time. The newly elected Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, head of the independence-seeking PQ party, was forced to brief the media alone at an Edinburgh hotel afterwards.

No photographers had even been present at the meeting in Salmond’s Holyrood office and his officials later downplayed the meeting as a “courtesy.”

READ MORE: Alex Salmond: ‘Once in a generation’ referendum was estimation

It prompted widespread suspicions at the time that Nationalist leaders in Scotland were keen to avoid associations with the Quebecois struggle which had been marked by an altogether more militant approach to secession and generations of ugly constitutional upheaval.

The experience of Quebec was brought into sharp focus in Scotland last week when the Montreal-born journalist Peter Scowen delivered the inaugural Scotland in the Union lecture in Edinburgh, setting out the roots of the struggle.

And perhaps more poignantly for Scotland, the economic stagnation which accompanies years of political upheaval was also set out in stark terms.

For most of the early part of the last century Montreal had been Canada’s most vibrant city, culminating in its staging the Summer Olympics in 1976. Later that year that the province’s Nationalist movement enjoyed its first major breakthrough when the Parti Quebecois’ leader Rene Levesque was elected Premier of Quebec.

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It kicked off decades of constitutional soul-searching in the Canadian province which became marked by the term “Neverendum” in recognition of the two votes, in 1980 then 15 years later, it staged on its constitutional future. On both occasions, the province decided to stay in Canada, although only by the narrowest of margins (50.58-49.42) in 1995.

And while, like Scotland, the peoples’ right to self-determination is inviolate, this comes with an impact on the economy. Hundreds of companies left Montreal in the decade after the election of the PQ including some of Canada’s biggest firms such as Royal Bank of Canada, Electrolux and Sun Life. Montreal’s growth rate has also been the lowest of any of Canada’s major cities at 1.5 per cent over the past ten years. Estimates have suggested that even with average Canadian growth rates, per capita income would be $3,450 higher today. Montreal is a stunningly beautiful island city and with almost 4 million people living in the wider metropolitan area it remains a vibrant place with a solid economy. It has plenty going for it. It simply hasn’t grown the way it should have done.

And it is widely seen as unbecoming of Quebecois to raise vulgar economic concerns in the struggle for self-determination. There are of course, distinct differences between the Nationalist movement in Quebec and Scotland.

The organised violence which accompanied the rise of the Nationalist movement across the Atlantic was always at odds with the all-embracing “civic nationalism” which SNP leaders in Scotland have sought to pursue.

Throughout the 1960s, Montreal suffered a sustained bombing campaign, and occasional kidnappings, to further the cause. It was aimed at scaring locals and attracting attention rather than causing physical harm, but lives were lost and it marked the more militant aspect of the movement in Quebec which Salmond was keen to distance himself from.

But its roots, in fairness, were grounded in a far more overt discrimination which the French speaking population had suffered for many years. English speakers had dominated the higher echelons of society taking all the top jobs. French-Canadians were unheard of on the boards of major firms in Montreal even up to the 1960s. French speakers were frozen out of many of the top management jobs, so its not difficult to see where the sense of social exclusion and a more militant approach to political activism stemmed from. French speakers had to emancipate themselves.

It led ultimately to a hardline approach which saw English briefly banned from road signs, immigration controls to favour French speakers and youngsters forced to go to French school if both parents spoke the language.

It has meant that Montreal’s share of the Canadian population has shrunk and more than 100,000 English speakers have left since 1981.

Are there lessons in any of this for Scotland? The cultural divide between the two cases leaves little obvious room for comparison. But the impact of ongoing political and constitutional instability on the country’s business environment may be harder to ignore. Scotland’s economy is certainly suffering a massive “shock” at the moment, but this is down to the global oil price crash and can’t be blamed on the independence movement. At the same time, there are other more worrying economic pointers which paint a more gloomy picture for the growth picture north of the Border.

It emerged recently that Scotland’s share of inward investment projects has fallen with just 108 projects counted last year, down from 122 and 119 in previous years.

The most recent unemployment figures showed a welcome improvement after a miserable year, but almost every other measure shows a Scotland is falling behind the rest of the UK. There is now a widening GDP gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK, while retail sales and business confidence is also lower north of the border than elsewhere.

And of course the Brexit vote has only added to the instability.

Nicola Sturgeon has faced some flak in recent days after weekend claims that independence “transcends” more mundane issues like the economy and Brexit. But after the last referendum result swung on concerns of an independent Scotland’s prospects, Ms Sturgeon knows addressing this issue will be pivotal before Scots are asked about leaving the UK again.