Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in 2007
It’s hardly a secret that the European Union is battling disunity in every corner, and as of this week, two more potential crises can be added to the growing list of problems confronting Brussels.
The UK will be voting in June on its membership status as part of the European Union, but it’s a different referendum that has many Britons worried these days. Scotland goes to the polls in May, and the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), led by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, looks set to win another landslide victory. Though the nationalists lost 2014’s referendum on independence there, support for Scottish separation continues to grow. Meanwhile, the UK and the rest of the continent face very real concerns over the economic toll that the breakup of Europe’s second-largest economy would unleash.
Sturgeon has hinted that a second independence referendum may be on the horizon, and this one could go in the nationalists’ favor, especially if the UK votes to leave the EU on June 23rd. Ironically, the best lesson for British leadership on how to handle the movement comes from their own former colony across the Atlantic – Canada.
Fortunately for those in the UK, the Québec sovereignty movement has for nearly a decade now been on life-support. Canadian political history provides some invaluable lessons that Westminster must learn from if they hope to put a similar end to Scotland’s nationalist urges.
The United Kingdom is certainly no stranger to fervent independence movements. The decades-long “troubles” in Ireland saw a violent clash over religion, culture, and nationalism. In Scotland, on the other hand, the British government faces an entirely different kind of nationalism, one that is not characterized by violence and one that is not ultimately rooted in religious divisions. Westminster’s favored method of dealing with problems in Belfast (which invariably involved sending military troops) simply would not be effective in Glasgow. The independence movement in Scotland is different – it takes advantage of existing democratic channels to make its case instead of taking to the streets.
For those reasons, the British government is paralyzed: a revolution that is civil, rather than violent, cannot be solved with police patrols and riot shields. The response of the Cameron government to Scottish demands for accommodation and devolution has been, at its best, profoundly tone-deaf. A rapid change in Britain’s Scottish policy is needed to quell the revolution brewing there.
The Québec independence movement is strikingly similar to the burgeoning one in Scotland. It has been almost entirely violence-free throughout its history. Leaders of the independence movement in the province have sought to achieve a sovereign Québec through democratic means – contesting elections under a nationalist banner and, once in government, holding referenda (in 1980 and again in 1995) on becoming a separate country.
Many Canadians watched the recent rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and saw a mirror-image of the Parti Québécois (PQ). Political leaders in Québec argued that an independent Québec would not just mean dignity for the province, but also a stronger economy. On the other side of the Atlantic, Scottish nationalists have made similar pragmatic, rather than radical, arguments in favor of independence.
Placation Over Affiliation
Flexibility and compromise must come to define the relationship between the UK government and Scotland, and the past four decades in Canada provide a guide to getting the balance right. Over the years, successive administrations in Ottawa have taken dramatically different approaches to dealing with nationalists in French Canada.
On the one hand, Pierre Trudeau was often accused of “picking a fight” with Québec’s provincial government. His decision to significantly amend the country’s constitution in 1982 without any approval from Québec is one of the biggest reasons why the independence movement gained so much steam there over the decade after.
However, sympathizing with nationalist elements is a path to problems as well. Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won unprecedented electoral support in Québec in the 1980’s after pandering to the nationalists, promising the province special status and much more autonomy within Canada. Like Pierre Trudeau’s policies, Mulroney’s also backfired. His government’s planned constitutional amendments, which would have recognized Québec as a “distinct society” within Canada, failed twice. Anger at Mulroney’s inability to deliver the autonomy he promised added further fuel to the fire in Québec. The lesson here is that no British government should pander to Scotland’s nationalist urges to get votes, or it will risk creating demand for independence that it likely won’t fulfill.
Rather, the successful formula to keeping a nation together can be found in the approach Canada employed throughout the 1990’s. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, constantly confronted with nationalist governments in Québec, proved able to both accommodate some separatist sentiment and promote the merits of remaining in Canada. He granted Québec an absolute veto over future constitutional amendments, but also granted this privilege to other regions of the country. He passed a law governing secession referenda which both acknowledged the legitimacy of Québec’s independence movement but also severely limited the possibility of a future “yes” vote by insisting all future referendum questions be voted on by federal parliament. This “middle ground” approach has since been adopted by successive Canadian governments, and has in the process reduced the strength of the sovereignty movement in Québec.
This method – accommodation and regulation – is the way forward for a United Kingdom that will include Scotland in its future. Westminster might need to take different steps than Ottawa, given the two countries’ dramatically different histories and political institutions, but the end-game will be the same. David Cameron has to live up to his promise to devolve more power to Scotland, but he must do the same for regional assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland. In the coming referendum on EU membership, which is expected to be close, Cameron would be very wise to consider Nicola Sturgeon’s proposal that a ‘yes’ vote to a Brexit must require not just a majority of the popular vote (in which a ‘leave’ vote from England could easily swamp solid ‘remain’ margins in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland combined), but support in a majority of each of the four countries that make up the UK.
Nationalism is on the rise globally, and the balanced approach Canada took to Québec applies not just to Scotland, but in many hotbeds of separatism in other parts of the EU — Catalonia and Flanders come to mind. The British Government has an opportunity to show its European neighbors how to take a moderate approaching to dealing with a burgeoning independence movement, because in an increasingly tumultuous Europe, leaders from Madrid to Brussels will need all the help they can get.
Benson Cook is a first-year student at McGill University, studying Political Science.