Lessons from Quebec on avoiding another Scottish referendum

Montreal 1980: ring any bells? Doug, CC BY-SA

Will the Scots be satisfied with the package of new powers that has been put before them? The Smith Commission, which was tasked with coming up with a new settlement following the September referendum, is proposing a set of measures including the devolution of income tax and control over some aspects of welfare.

These go further than the three main UK parties’ proposals for reform that were published earlier in the year, but not as far as the moves towards a full federal structure that appeared to be on the table at the time of the parties’ “vow” in the final days before the vote.

Quebec 1980 – the aftermath

In this context, it is worth looking at the 1980 referendum in Quebec and its aftermath. Just like in Scotland, the No campaign in Quebec used negative arguments against separation, predicting dire economic consequences if the province were to become a country.

And like in Scotland, promises of constitutional renewal were also made. They were vague but effective. Many people voted No with the conviction that change was on the way and it would result in more autonomy. The No side achieved 60% of the vote in Quebec, compared to Scotland’s 55%.

Constitutional reform started in Canada the day after the referendum. But with the agenda controlled by Ottawa, the promise of change that had been made solely to Quebec became a pledge to make several ambitious constitutional modifications for the entire country. Sound familiar?

Finding an acceptable constitutional status for Quebec that would get support from both French and English Canadians was not going to be easy. But Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau refused to focus on that. He wanted to entrench a controversial bill of rights, get new economic powers for the federal government and a new amending formula for the constitution.

The Quebec dimension disappeared totally in this broader scheme. As a result, both federalists and nationalists rallied against Ottawa. In a surprising turn of events, seven of the nine other provinces also decided to oppose the federal government. The reform process became even more difficult, passionate and controversial than it was already – driving Quebec even further down the agenda.

Don’t make same mistakes with Scotland

That is certainly a first lesson for the UK. As Westminster now decides what to do with the Smith Commission proposals, it needs to keep the focus on Scotland. Conservative attempts to meld reform with the question of English votes for English laws would risk undermining the process – David Cameron’s latest comments on the subject following the Smith proposals attracted fresh ire from his Westminster opponents this week. So would proposals of taking advantage of the current circumstances to give Britain a written constitution, advocated by The Economist and the UK’s leading judge.

That said, let’s go back to the events of 1980-82 in Canada, a debate that also concerned the UK. Until that point in time, the Canadian constitution was still a British statute that only Westminster could amend. Trudeau needed the British parliament support to enact his constitutional reforms.

The dissenting provinces, collectively known as the gang of eight, decided to mount a public relations campaign in the UK aimed at convincing MPs and Lords to vote against Trudeau’s proposals. This was not an easy task but provincial agent-generals in London were eventually able to plant seeds of doubt in the mind of several parliamentarians.

Their job was made easier by the fact that some lawmakers, especially on the Labour side, were becoming attracted to the idea of devolution for Scotland – which they could see parallels with in Canada. Michael Foot, leader of the Labour opposition, was among them. For him, decentralisation was the way of the future and the constitutional reforms proposed by Trudeau were incompatible with Canadian federalism.

Others, especially in the Tory camp, thought that enacting a charter of rights was something to be done by Canadians once the process of decoupling the country from the UK was completed. Britain was not to be used by Trudeau to do something he could not do in Canada in the face of strong provincial opposition.

Margaret Thatcher eventually warned Pierre Trudeau that it would be much better if he could get more provincial support, otherwise his constitutional bill would be rejected by Westminster. He listened to this advice and made some concessions. Nine provinces rallied behind a new proposal. Westminster enacted it but Quebec has refused to endorse it ever since.

Trudeau and Queen Elizabeth II sign the new constitutional settlement for Canada in 1982. Library and Archives Canada, CC BY-SA

The Quebec fall-out

This non-endorsement makes no difference, legally speaking. The new constitution applies to Quebec anyway. Politically speaking, however, it has had some dramatic consequences. It led to two failed attempts to include Quebec in the constitutional family, the Meech Lake Accord of 1990 and the Charlottetown Accord in 1992.

This means that Canada is in a state of constitutional paralysis. Opening constitutional talks on any topic seems impossible, from senate reform to changing the line of succession to the throne to recognise female royal heirs (while the UK would now allow a female heir to ascend to the throne, it remains constitutionally prohibited in Canada). It would mean that before agreeing to anything else, Quebec would ask for some kind of special constitutional status that took into account its unique culture within Canada. The trauma is such that few politicians are willing to take this risk.

Ottawa’s failure to make good on its promises to Quebec also paved the way to a second referendum on independence in 1995. It ended with a very narrow victory for the federalists, with just 50.6% of the vote, which could very easily have gone the other way. New promises of change were made but again Ottawa failed to deliver.

There lies the other lesson for the UK. Just as Trudeau’s actions were virtually the opposite of what most Quebecois wanted in 1980, there are parallels with Scotland. If the issue of Scotland is not addressed in a way that will satisfy a majority of Scots, the issue is bound to bounce back. And next time around, the consequences might be very dramatic indeed.