The Scottish imprint on Montreal is unmistakeble; it’s everywhere. The civic coat of arms has a thistle on it. The financial district rings to the names of the Scottish businessmen – Angus, Ballantyne, Cameron, McGill, Torrance, McTavish – who turned this fur trading station on the St Lawrence river into one of the great cities of the world. The oldest golf club in North America was established here by and for the Scots diaspora. You wonder what Scotland might’ve been like today had these capitalist adventurers never left.
However, the official language here is not Scots but French and the politics of the province has been dominated for the last thirty five years by attempts by the Parti Quebecois to turn Quebec into an independent francophone state. To leave the Canadian Federation that was itself founded by a bibulous Glaswegian, John A MacDonald, in 1867. Quebecers don’t seem to see any contradictions here and celebrate their Scottish connection even while seeking to turn themselves into the new France of North America. Indeed, the social democratic Parti Quebecois has long sought to identify with the Scottish and Catalan civic nationalist movements, if only to define itself against the more racially-oriented right-wing nationalist movements of Europe like the French National Front of Jean Marie Le Pen.
Quebecers are immensely proud of their success in turning their province into the most open and egalitarian region in North America. Immigration has been encouraged – though newcomers are obliged to send their children to French=speaking schools. Quebec has a welfare state that has largely been immune to the wave of North American neo-liberalism. Parents enjoy universal daycare at $7 a day per child – that’s about £4.50. Taxes are higher than in the rest of North America, but no one seems to complain very much about that. Quebecers fiercely reject the claim, made by Canadian federalists, that the national question and independence referendums have damaged the economic and social fabric. Economic growth has lagged the rest of Canada in recent years, as has population growth, and there are fears that an ageing population could damage future prospects. But Quebec living standards have improved greatly relative to neighbouring Ontario over the last thirty years and “La Belle Province” is 17th in the OECD on economic performance and 13th in income per capita. Looking around prosperous cosmopolitan Montreal, it’s hard to believe the picture painted by UK unionists of Quebec as an introverted and impoverished provincial backwater poisoned by cultural narcissism. We should be so lucky.
So, as Scotland embarks on the referendum journey, with our referendum pencilled in for 2015, what can we learn from the experience of Quebec? Well, the first point to make is that Quebec even now has had a far greater autonomy than Scotland has under devolution. The provincial governments in Canada not only control things like health and education, they have powers over direct and indirect taxation, including corporation tax, income tax and sales taxes. They enter into tax sharing arrangements with the federal government, which is based in Ottawa and oversees currency, defence and foreign affairs and overall economic policy. Provincial governments also benefit from a complex system of financial transfers and equalisation arrangements, which redistribute wealth from richer to poorer provinces. Yes, fiscal autonomy and a Barnet Formula too. The current UK Scotland bill, for all the talk of tax powers, doesn’t go anywhere near offering Scotland the status that Quebec takes for granted.
Indeed, from a Scottish perspective, it’s sometimes hard to understant what new powers Quebec really needs, since its present status resembles the “independence lite” that the Scottish National Party is now said to favour. Quebec can do more or less what it wants as far as the economy is concerned, and it has run a large budget deficit in recent years. But the PQ leader, Pauline Morais, is adamant that Quebec still needs nationhood “a seat at the UN and an army, a small one, to help keep the peace of the world”. Quebec nationalists don’t shy away from flags-and-armies nationalism, even as they say they want a new “social union” with the rest of Canada and would keep the Canadian dollar. It’s not clear though whether they would keep the Queen – another of the paradoxes of Canadian constitutional life is that Elizabeh 11 remains Canada’s head of state – but they don’t seem to see it as a problem in this really rather relaxed land. The only thing that brings rioters out on the streets in Canada is ice hockey – 100 people were arrested two weeks ago after the Vancouver Canucks lost the deciding game in teh Stanley Cup.
The sovereigntist movement in Quebec has long sought to define itself as “associationist” rather than “separatist” and insists that its first move after winning an inependence referendum would be to negotiatate a new arrangement with the rest of Canada. This much, the SNP has learned from its long established contacts with the Parti Quebecois. Indeed, it’s clear speaking to party figures like the PQ constitutionalist Prof Daniel Turp that Alex Salmond has borrowed much of the rhetoric of the Quebec sovereigntists. “Mr Salmond was particularly keen”, Turp told me “to learn how we built up the Quebec influence in the Canadian parliament in Ottawa”. Quebec nationalism has been represented at federal level by the Bloc Quebecois, which is nominally a separate party and has in the past been the official Canadian opposition. It’s hard to imagine Westminster with Alex Salmond as opposition leader, but that’s how it’s been here.
However, the Bloc Quebecois was routed in last month’s federal elections and has lost 43 of its 47 seats – the complete opposite of the SNP’s May landslide. And the PQ in Quebec itself is in disarray, out of power and riven with splits and defections. The prominent Quebec journalist Chantal Hebert describes it as “the biggest sea change in Quebec politics in four decades”. She believes that the independence movement was essentially a baby-boomer phenomenon and that the new generation, while still defiantly Quebecers, feel less insecure about their identity. “I don’t believe there will be another referendum on independence.”, she tells me. “The big issues today are climate change, jobs, education not sovereignty”
The PQ of course dismisses this insisting that 40% of Quebecers still support independence, and that the movement has had many set backs before. Rather like Scottish nationalism, the politics of Quebec sovereignty is very much boom and bust. In 1980, four years after the great PQ election victory, independence was soundly defeated, and the party seemed to lose its way as the charismatic Canadian premier, Pierre Trudeau, imposed a new constitution on Canada to close off the indepednence movement. Then again, in 1995 after its second and much narrower defeat, the Quebec sovereigntists suffered a crisis of confidence after its then leader, Jaques Parizeau, appered to blame immigrants for the defeat. The PQ came back and returned to power in the 2000s. But there is reason to believe that the bust may be more long lasting this time, and that the next refeendum is a long way off.
In 1998, the Canadian Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling on the right of Quebec to seceede, arguing, essentially that it did not, under international or domestic law, have the right to leave Canada unilaterally. It went on to argue that, if a very clear majority of Quebecers clearly voted for independence, the rest of Canada would have to recognise this and accommodate it. But it did not give the Quebec government the right to declare independence. Now, this begged the question of what Canada would do if it ever did declare UDI – no one thinks Ottawa would go to war over it. And the ruling was ambiguous in other ways. But most commentators believe that the Supreme Court intervention will make it more difficult for the sovereigntists to call referndums in future, if only because they would have to be sure that they would win it by a convincing majority. This 1998 ruling, and the Clarity Act that followed it, has since become internationally recognised and has been cited in secession disputes in Sudan and Montenegro. It will almost certainly be studied by the UK Supreme Court as Scotland prepares for its referendum in the next few years, especially if there are objections to the SNP government’s right to hold it.
But the main lessons for the SNP from the Quebec experience are these; govern effectively the better to argue for greater autonomy; don’t sound separatist, even if you are; don’t get hung up on symbols, like the monarchy or the currency; and above all, don’t hold a referendum unless you can be sure to win it. Federalists and nationalists agree that the prospects for another referendum are remote at present, and indeed that it would be counterproductive to hold one. The PQ says it will be concentrating on creating “winning conditions” for the forseeable future and that it has no plans for another referendum if and when it wins back power.
It’s often said that Quebec has had a “neverendum” rather than a referendum. Certainly, the constitutional question has dominated politics – in Quebec and Ottawa – for four decades – but not necessarily in a bad way. The sovereignty movement has enlivened political debate here and ensured that Quebec got the best possible economic deal from the federal government. There is evidence that the French language laws, certainly in the last century, deterred investment and made US firms reluctant to base their operations in Montreal. But it is very hard to argue that the referendums themselves have had any negative impact on this pretty resilient and self-sufficient community.
Montreal feels like other great “provincial” cities of the world, like Melbourne, San Francisco, Milan. Quebec has found a way of reconciling Scandinavian levels of social provision with a US-style business ethic. And unlike Scotland, it doesn’t have oil. It’s hard not to look around and wonder why Glasgow isn’t more like Montreal, since it was largely built by expat Scottish entrepreneurs. And we started from such a higher base. When the Clyde was building half the world’s shipping, Montreal was still trapping beaver. Now it is a global city of 2 million, built on finance, pharmaceuticals and technology, while Glasgow languishes in post-industrial decline watching its population die from preventable disease. If this is what you get from constitutional instability and independence referendums then all one can say is: bring it on.