Looking at the #indyref from Montreal

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What is the significance for the trouncing of the Parti Québécois (PQ) in last month’s elections in Quebec for the situation in Scotland? I’d say it is an important one but it is not an obvious one. At first glance it appears that the main significance of the defeat is it shows that the Canadian province doesn’t have the stomach for another referendum on independence. The raison d’etre of the PQ is independence after all.  The PQ initiated the 1980 referendum seeking a mandate to negotiate for independence. It was rejected by 60 per cent of voters. They tried again in 1995, and after a protracted campaign dogged by the confusing terminology of the referendum question, lost by a much slender margin. 

Of course, with a referendum due in Scotland events in Quebec look like they don’t have much relevance. That would be too easy an attitude to adopt and indeed the SNP have in one regard already learned a valuable lesson from the PQ. Although a Yes vote looks unlikely for the referendum, during the previous Holyrood election the SNP steered clear of placing the referendum at the core of its campaign thereby keeping at least nominally the link between the SNP and the Yes campaign indirect. They did very well at that election. There may be other lessons to learn should the Yes vote lose in September as is likely. The Quebec situation would lead one to believe that once you lose a referendum, drop the idea, less you become identified by it. Salmond will no doubt announce if Scotland votes ‘no’ that he will champion the Scottish people in whichever way they wish him too and then try and kill public discussion of another referendum somewhere down the line. 

Indeed the SNP are placed well even if the referendum on independence in September 2014 returns a ‘No’ vote. Polls suggest that even if the SNP lose they are likely to do well – very well – in next year’s Scottish election, consolidating their place as the predominant north of the border. Oddly, even if the referendum does not return a Yes, one could argue it has been a great success for the SNP, largely because it has forced their main opponents Scottish Labour into an alliance with the Tory government in Westminster and done them huge damage in the eyes of a Scottish public who have for nearly 40 years now defined themselves in opposition to Tory governments in Westminster, even if their self-definition as ‘left wing’ is open to debate.

Importantly the PQ did not campaign on a platform of a referendum. Not in this election nor in the one they won 18 months ago. Pauline Marois, the now-discredited PQ leader who lost her seat to the Liberal Party in last month’s election, knew there was no hunger for an independence vote and took the line during both campaigns that they would wait for the people of Quebec to be ready before introducing another referendum, although she entertained some idle conjecture on the subject. The vast majority of die-hard sovereigntists in Quebec acknowledged there was no real appetite for another long-winded, divisive referendum campaign. If voters trusted her in 2012 on this issue, why would they suddenly have changed their minds about the party in 2014?

With little to chose between the parties in terms of economic policy, what this hammering for the PQ – they lost 24 out of 125 seats – signals is something more than a referendum. Or rather, what it signals is the PQ’s failure to provide something of real value other than a referendum. According to even militant Quebec nationalists such as Jean Dorion, a former President of the highly influential Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society of Montreal, the main reason for the defeat of the PQ at the snap election that they themselves called, was the shift to an identity politics within Quebec which may have narrowly won them the 2012 election but proved to be disastrous during the ugly year and a half they were in office.

The PQ campaigned in 2012 on a charter of Quebec values and an extension of language rights, designed to shift the official bi-lingual status of the province to a French-first one. If enacted the bill for language rights would have widened the legal powers to make French the everyday language. It was incredibly unpopular amongst anglophones in the province, who feared it attacked the billingual settlement in Quebec established by Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s. However this unpopularity was nothing compared to that which greeted the proposed Charter of Quebec Values. Under the guise of secularism, this legislation would have barred all public sector employees from wearing a hijab or other “ostentatious” religious symbols while working. (Although Catholic insignia such as the cross in the parliamentary debating hall were to be exempted because of their historical status.)

Although the Scottish Nationalists frequently play fast and loose with civil liberties and Salmond’s remarks about Putin restoring “pride” in Russia are worrying, they are a hopefully a long way off producing such an obnoxious piece of legislation. It might be pertinent to note that when the PQ attacked a fundamental value of Canada – it’s openness to immigrants of all kinds, including Muslims – they reminded the Quebecois that they were Canadian. For all the Canadian Liberal Party’s fuzzy logic on the relationship between Quebec identity and federalism and its cheerful refusal to say how it will address the provinces massive debt, it is at least able sustain itself by a set of values, presented in relation to universal ones.

The PQ is different in that they are isolationist party ineptly working the leavers of identity politics. They want separation not just from anglophone Canada but the USA and well, anyone else they can think of. The SNP clearly has aims on something largely but it remains unarticulated. Alan Bissett recently attempted to prove that the Yes campaign was no longer nationalist but socialist in tone but he was, to put it mildly, unconvincing. There is an act of subtle dishonesty in the pro-independence movement in Scotland whereby it defines itself in opposition to a vision of a Tory-dominated Westminster and a Tory-dominated England, ignoring the fact that a Tory party has not had a majority at Westminster in over 20 years and much else besides.

What the fate of the Parti Quebecois does highlight is a question mark over a central term in the vocabulary the Yes movement uses about itself. The Yes movement strives to define itself as an example of civic nationalism – a concept coined by a Canadian Michael Ignatieff – as opposed to ethnic nationalism. Ignatieff indeed used Quebec as a means of helping him define this difference. He argued that the nationalism and liberalism were compatible with each other in Quebec because the individual Quebecois was permitted to chose “a balance of identities”. Yet the PQs disgraceful Charter and life in Quebec under their restrictive language laws, have shown how susceptible this delineation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nationalism is to attack.

Of course the PQ’s hammering is a sign that perhaps the Quebecois have an understanding of where this artificial delineation stands, but where does it stand in Scotland. The question that the PQ election defeat prompts in Scotland is this: on what terms do the Yes camp justify independence in relation to universal democratic ideals? If Scotland is not part of the UK, what is it part of?

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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