It is always useful to look at international and historical comparisons for the challenges we face in Scotland today. One part of the world that has faced similar constitutional issues to ours is the largely Francophone province of Quebec, which held two referendums on the question of independence (or, as they put it, “sovereignty”), in 1980 and 1995. Whilst on both occasions the vote went against separation, in 1995 it did so by the tightest of margins, with just one per cent between the winning and losing totals.
Since 1995, however, the notion of independence for Quebec has slipped down the political agenda, with a collapse in support both for it as a concept, and for the separatist Parti Quebecois. In the most recent provincial election last October, the once-dominant PQ secured just 17 per cent of the vote, with the winner being the soft-nationalist Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ).
What explains this turnaround in little more than 20 years? Simply, Quebecers tired of the constitutional argument. A younger generation in the province, still proud of their Quebec heritage, became more comfortable with the notion of being Canadian, secure in the view that a strong federal system protected local decision-making.
There is little doubt that the constitutional debates had an economic impact. The banking centre of Canada moved from Montreal to Toronto, largely due to concerns over Quebec separation. A legacy of those times is the irony that today the Bank of Montreal is headquartered not in the city whose name it bears, but in English-speaking Toronto.
The debate over Quebec’s future had consequences too for the local electoral landscape. With a first-past-the-post voting system, there was little point in the federalist, pro-Canada parties splitting the anti-separatist vote any more than was necessary.
So the Conservative Party of Canada, despite its electoral successes at a federal level, does not contest elections to the Quebec National Assembly. Instead, Quebec Conservatives vote for the Quebec Liberal Party, which despite its name has been independent of the Canadian Liberals – the party of Justin Trudeau – since 1955, and sits somewhat to their right on economic issues.
These arrangements are perhaps best illustrated in the long career of the Quebec politician Jean Charest. Charest started his journey as a Conservative in Canada’s federal Parliament in Ottawa, serving as leader of the party there from 1993 to 1998. Then, on the invitation of the Quebec Liberals, he left the federal Parliament – and the Canada Conservatives – to become the provincial Liberal leader, in which position he went on to be elected as Premier of Quebec. He served in that role from 2003-2012, winning an unprecedented three election victories.
While the notion of different political parties at different levels might seem unusual to us, it is the norm across Canada. Centre-right, pro-Canada Quebecers have no difficulty in voting one way in a federal election, and quite differently in a provincial one.
So what might we in Scotland learn from all this? Firstly, there is nothing inevitable about independence or constitutional change. It might have seemed to Quebecers in the 1990s that nothing would stop the separatist juggernaut, but the voters simply tired of the constitutional debate.
Voter fatigue is something we are becoming familiar with. My sense of where we are with Brexit is that there is a growing demand that politicians “just get it over with”. There is little appetite to re-open the independence question here while the Brexit question is still unresolved, and even then I wonder whether the public will be enthusiastic about yet another round of constitutional debate.
Secondly, we should not assume that our current political party structures are either optimal, or set to last for ever. Boris Johnson’s appointment as Prime Minister has reignited the debate over whether there should be a separate Scottish Conservative Party, an idea I put forward in 2011 when I stood for the party leadership (although it was by no means an original one).
Notwithstanding my views on the issue at that time, to me the notion that we should split from the Conservative Party as a reaction to Boris’s election as UK leader is as daft an idea as the SNP’s claim that this is an argument for independence. The Union has lasted for more than 300 years, it has been substantially to the benefit of Scotland to have been part of it for that time, both economically and socially, and to dismantle it as a knee-jerk response to the identity of any one holder of the office of Prime Minister, and lose these advantages as a consequence, would be ridiculous.
Moreover, if Boris can deliver an orderly Brexit, he may well end up governing the UK as a true One-Nation Conservative. A look at his record in office as mayor of London suggests that is entirely possible, and some of his early announcements – for example on dropping his predecessor’s misguided immigration targets – have been warmly welcomed by Scottish Conservatives.
I understand the concerns of Conservative colleagues who don’t want to change our relationship with the UK party. I also appreciate that I have MP colleagues who want to be part of a bigger team, and feel that their constituents should have the right to vote directly for the party of Government in a Westminster election. But, if we were to adopt a Canadian model of political parties, that would all still be possible. The key battleground ahead for us is 2021 – the Scottish Parliament elections – where a victory for the SNP with a majority of seats at Holyrood for pro-independence parties will lead to them claiming a mandate for a second referendum.
The priority for unionists, of all parties, must be to defeat them in that objective.
The lesson of politics in Quebec is that when the forces of federalism come together they can see off the threat of separation.
If it worked there, it could work here. At least we should be considering whether the Canadian approach is one we can learn from.