Scotland’s Referendum: Some lessons for Quebec… and Canada

Superficially, the 55-45 victory of the No forces in Scotland’s referendum September 18 was a clear rejection of independence. The Yes forces won a majority only in the four poorest and most deprived of the nation’s 32 local divisions, although a class breakdown of the vote would show a majority of the working-class voted for independence.

It was the mobilization of working-class support, especially during the final month of the campaign, that brought Yes support from 30-35 per cent in the opinion polls to the high 40s and even low 50s on the eve of the vote. A registration campaign led by the Radical Independence Campaign, a left platform within the Yes Scotland movement,[1] entitled 97 per cent of the electorate to vote in the referendum. In the end, only 84 per cent actually exercised that right. But even this was a record turnout – the highest vote in a Scottish election for over a century. (In Quebec’s 1995 referendum on sovereignty, about 95 per cent of the electorate voted with an even closer outcome, barely 50,000 votes separating the Yes from the victorious No.)

Impressive Mobilization

Although the Yes side lost, most commentary focused on the impressive mobilization for independence in the campaign, with broad layers of the population participating in the debates and organizing to get out the vote. “The chance to vote on Scotland’s future has in fact brought about a popular mobilization for radical social change unlike anything we have seen in these islands for a generation,” wrote Hilary Wainwright, an editor of the English journal Red Pepper.

“The referendum has become an invitation to say no to a superpower whose wars, most recently against Iraq, the Scottish people found abhorrent and yet were forced to join; a chance to say no to decades of social injustice and sacrifice at the altar of the global market by Conservative and Labour governments at Westminster, for which Scottish voters did not vote. It is, finally, a chance to refuse a democracy without substance in which MPs working 300 miles away and more are too distant to be accountable or subject to popular pressure.

“Most importantly, Scottish people have grasped the choice that they have to make directly – unmediated by the political class – as an opportunity to imagine the kind of society that they, the Scottish people, could build with the democratic possibilities of independence.”

This was indeed a welcome message to many. “Scotland,” writes James Maxwell in Al Jazeera, “is one of the most unequal countries in western Europe. Close to one million Scots – one fifth of the population – live in inadequate housing. Moreover, 250,000 are struggling to feed themselves properly. Thirteen per cent of the working population lives in poverty.”

Cat Boyd, a leader of the Radical Independence Campaign, underscored the class nature of the Yes support:

“If the working class were the only ones to vote in the independence referendum, there would have been a Yes vote on September 18th. In Scotland’s poorest areas, all of which are traditional Labour heartlands, the argument for independence to create a socially just Scotland was won. A Yes vote became a revolt against the alienation of the British state and the British economy.

“All analyses of the referendum result have agreed that there is a linear relationship between unemployment, poverty and a higher yes vote. …

“The voter turn-out was so high because for once how you voted actually mattered. The referendum proved that when people are given a vote which genuinely makes a difference to their lives and to those around them, they reached out and not only voted but shaped the entire substance of the debate.”

Inclusive and Welcoming

Also notable was the broadly-based composition of the Yes vote, winning widespread support among ethnic minorities and recent immigrants. This is not surprising, as the independence campaign was not based on any narrow appeal to ethnic identity; the Scottish citizenship it advocated was inclusive and welcoming to new arrivals.

This movement “is not based on narrow nationalism; for many of its participants, it is not nationalist at all,” writes Murray Smith, a former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party.[2]

“On the eve of the referendum, at a mass pro-independence rally in the main square of Glasgow, activist and lawyer Aamer Anwar was loudly applauded when he declared, ‘I am not a nationalist, I am an internationalist’.

“This movement is not anti-English; it is for democracy, social justice, for a new society, against war. The majority of its activists are on the left in the broad sense.”

The No campaign, on the other hand, was totally lacking in any perspective of improvement in people’s lives, and with reason. “There was much talk of how ineffective the no campaign was,” writes Irvine Welsh in The Guardian.

“In some ways this is unfair: you can only go with what you’ve got and they simply weren’t packing much heat. The union they strove to protect was based on industry and empire and the esprit de corps from both world wars, and you can’t maintain a political relationship on declining historical sentiment alone. With the big, inclusive postwar building blocks of the welfare state and the NHS [National Health System] being ripped apart by both major parties there’s zero currency in campaigning on that, especially as they’re only being preserved in Scotland by the devolved parliament. The boast of using oil revenues to fund privatization projects and bail out bankers for their avarice and incompetence is never going to be a vote winner. Going negative was the only option.”

No Campaign Based on Fear

And negative they went, with a vengeance. Only five newspapers (three of them Scottish) of the 27 newspapers inventoried by Wikipedia supported independence.[3] The others, including other mass media, campaigned massively for the No, spreading their messages of gloom and doom if the Scots were so foolish as to opt for dissolving the 300 year old Union with England. Business leaders chimed in, led by Bank of England governor (and former Bank of Canada governor) Mark Carney. The Scots were told they would be excluded from the European Union; they would be barred from using the British pound or the Euro, and their own currency (if they chose to create one) would be seriously devalued; economic chaos loomed, and so on and on.

There were some amusing sides to this. As socialist blogger Richard Seymour noted,

“Unionists could stand in front of a sea of red, white and blue, and decry ‘narrow Scottish nationalism,’ with no apparent sense of irony. They can drop the ‘two world wars’ meme one minute, and deride national chauvinism the next. This, of course, is itself a record of the peculiar power of British nationalism. Whenever an ideology is so pervasive that one inhabits it, lives in it, such that it is simply taken for granted – when, in a word, naturalized – that is when it has achieved the peak of its success. But there’s something else. British nationalism is ‘global’ precisely because it is imperial. To have a British identity is, for many, to have access to the world. This is the sense in which Scottish nationalism is, by contrast, ‘narrow’.”

The Conservatives, who govern in London in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, had little credibility in Scotland, where they hold only one seat. It fell to the opposition Labour Party, with 41 Scottish MPs at Westminster, to lead the No campaign, labelled “Better Together.” In the last two weeks of the campaign former British Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, emerging from retirement, uttered vague promises of devolution of further powers to the Scottish parliament if the No triumphed. All of this would sound familiar to Québécois and Canadians with long memories of the Quebec sovereignty referendums of 1980 and 1995 and the federalist promises of constitutional reform if the No won. But the Québécois also remember that each losing referendum battle was followed by federalist offensives that imposed further constraints on Quebec’s powers.

The fear campaign was probably instrumental in producing a last-minute victory for the No, and possibly in reducing the number of registered voters who actually voted. However, this may prove a Pyrrhic victory, in the medium and long term. There are post-referendum reports of large increases in the membership of the pro-independence parties. In the week following the referendum, the Scottish Socialist Party reported 2500 new members, with the number still growing. The Scottish National Party, which forms a majority government in the Scottish Parliament, says its membership has almost doubled since the referendum, standing now at over 50,000.[4] Other reports indicate a serious loss in credibility and support for the Labour party in Scotland, which historically has been one of that party’s strongest electoral bases.

Many Scots, “including quite a few in the no camp,” reports the Guardian‘s Irvine Welsh,[5] have become

“disenchanted by the negative, desperate campaign orchestrated from Westminster, and the establishment in general, particularly the way business and media interests have been nakedly shown to collude against democracy. If the yes campaign excited Scots to the possibilities of people power, the opposition one showed the political classes, their establishment masters and metropolitan groupies in the most cynical, opportunistic light. From the empty, manipulative celebrity ‘love-bombing’ to the crass threats and smears issued by the press, around half of Scotland might now feel as if it has been classified as the ‘enemy within’, that stock designation for all those who resist the dictates of the elites’ centralized power.

“The yes movement hit such heights because the UK state was seen as failed; antiquated, hierarchical, centralist, discriminatory, out of touch and acting against the people. This election will have done nothing to diminish that impression.”

Demonstration Effect?

Scotland is only the latest of many small nations in Europe that have seen the development of powerful movements for national independence in recent years. On the day after the Scottish referendum defeat, the national assembly in Catalonia voted to proceed with a popular consultation on independence from Spain, building on the momentum from huge annual demonstrations for independence on Catalonia’s national day, September 11, in recent years.[6] The referendum will be illegal, according to Spain’s constitutional court, which in 2010 amended an autonomy statute adopted by the Catalonian parliament to remove its identification as a “nation.” (Even Stéphane Dion, the Liberal minister who piloted Canada’s Clarity Act, told El País that he thought the court was being unduly “rigid.”)[7]

In an interesting survey of some of these current independence movements, Le Devoir‘s Paris correspondent Christian Rioux reminded readers that in the current phase of capitalist globalization we were told nations would disappear, sinking into a melting pot while supranational institutions (the WTO, the World Bank?) moved to the fore. But the national movements represent a profound democratic impulse, he said. “If peoples are resisting as best they can the great universalist vacuum, it is not out of national egoism, as some claim. It is because they know that the nation remains the irreplaceable crucible of democracy. There is no other.”

Rioux noted that the Parti québécois traditionally has presented sovereignty as a way to repatriate control of taxes, increase living standards, to increase their RRSPs.

“[But] where, in what country, have we seen a people make independence to increase their standard of living?

“Nowhere! Independence is not primarily an economic matter, although it can also be that. Just as it is not primarily a cultural matter or one of simple linguistic survival, as it is all too often thought in Quebec.

“From Ireland to Slovakia, from Slovenia to Norway, the people who become sovereign do it first in order to achieve their political freedom, to exist in the world, to make their original voice heard and to come to terms with themselves. Those who are looking only for cultural survival don’t need independence. Cultural autonomy will suffice, as Quebec clearly shows. Those looking only for economic success don’t need independence, as Scotland has shown for three centuries.

“Independence is first of all a matter of political will… the only way to reconcile economy, culture and politics….”[8]

I think there are a number of important lessons for Quebec independentists and socialists in this experience. Some are relevant as well to Canadian progressives outside of Quebec. Here are a few.

1. The issue was independence, not a tentative ‘sovereignty-association’

The question on the ballot was “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Yes or No. Straight to the point. What a contrast with the convoluted and apologetic question the Parti québécois government asked in the 1980 referendum:

“The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad – in other words, sovereignty – and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?”

Or, still worse, the question the PQ and its allies asked in 1995:

“Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?”

which implied that the voter had read or understood both the cited legislation and the tripartite agreement between the PQ, the Bloc Québécois, and the Action démocratique du Québec.

Both questions could logically be interpreted as making independence contingent on agreement of the rest of Canada. They reflected both the parties’ reluctance to create a sovereign state truly independent of the Canadian state and their doubts in their ability to build majority support for political independence. Opinion polls indicated many voters thought a yes vote would simply result in some form of renewed federal agreement.

In contrast, most commentators attribute the Scots’ enthusiasm for independence to the possibility their referendum question gave them to focus their thinking on what independence itself might or could mean for them – fueling a vast democratic debate throughout the nation and, in time, putting the reactionary British government on the defensive.

“…Left supporters of independence to mount their own campaign, within the coalition for independence, for a Scotland that would be fundamentally different from neoliberal and imperialist Britain.”

The Scottish referendum question was worked out in advance between the Scottish government and its counterpart in London, the latter agreeing to abide by a majority vote for independence should that be the result. At the time, it was commonly presumed that British PM David Cameron thought the stark alternatives – independence or the status quo – would deter all but the most committed independence supporters, then a relatively small minority. But it turned out to have the opposite effect, not least because of the determined initiative by left supporters of independence to mount their own campaign, within the coalition for independence, for a Scotland that would be fundamentally different from neoliberal and imperialist Britain.

This should provoke some rethinking on the left in both Quebec and the rest of Canada (ROC). The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that a future referendum question should meet its standard of clarity (unspecified) and command “clear majority” support (likewise unspecified), and the Chrétien government’s subsequent Clarity Act made Quebec sovereignty following a Yes vote contingent on agreement by the federal Parliament and the other provinces. Whatever our principled objections to these federal constraints – which limit the exercize of Quebec’s right to self-determination – a clearly stated question on independence would not only put the issue squarely to Québécois (and remove the ambiguity in the PQ’s questions) but also undermine the credibility of any federalist challenge to the legitimacy of a yes vote, no matter how large the majority.

In 2013 the federal NDP sought to bridge these concerns in its Bill C-470, which would have obliged the federal government to negotiate with Quebec in the event of a yes vote on a clear referendum question, and to accept a simple majority of 50 per cent plus 1 as the threshold for agreeing to negotiate in acceptance of the popular verdict. As I wrote at the time, the NDP bill may have reflected the then-recent agreement between Westminster and Holyrood (the Scottish parliament) on the terms of the proposed Scottish referendum.[9] In the Scottish case, this advance agreement was a positive achievement of the pro-independence forces, helping to minimize the threat of British retaliation in the wake of a Yes vote.

2. Which comes first: Referendum or Constituent Assembly?

In Scotland, there was little talk about a constituent assembly following a successful Yes vote, probably on the assumption that a newly independent nation would naturally have to adopt its own constitution. This is an assumption shared by all pro-independence forces in Quebec, including the Parti québécois, although each party has its own ideas about how the appropriate assembly should be chosen and function.

However, the left-wing party Québec solidaire has its own twist on this. It calls for convening a constituent assembly prior to a referendum on independence. The democratically elected assembly would “consult the people of Quebec” on what kind of political status they want for Quebec, devise a constitution based on the majority view and finally put the draft constitution to a popular referendum for approval. The QS proposal is motivated in opposition to the top-down process implemented up to now by PQ governments of unilaterally formulating the question and conducting the Yes campaign with no input from below.

However, QS always stipulates that while it would fight for sovereignty in the proposed assembly, it would “not presume the outcome of the debates.” Some QS leaders, such as Amir Khadir, one of its three MNAs, formulate this as “sovereignty if necessary but not necessarily sovereignty.” The QS position tends to separate the democratic question – and political independence is the supreme democratic question, a precondition to the full exercize of all democratic rights – from the social content of the party’s strategic project.

And in today’s conditions of retreat and demobilization of the social movements under the blows of capitalist austerity there is no assurance that even the most democratic constituent assembly, without a powerful social upsurge from below, would be able to achieve a consensus on the need for independence.

The QS position has been criticized by many sovereigntists who understandably question the party’s commitment to independence.

The ambiguity in the QS program prompted many QS members to sign a joint statement with members of the smaller pro-independence party Option nationale (ON) during the recent Quebec election campaign stating that in their view “the Constitution of Quebec will be that of a sovereign state and the legal foundation of a provincial government.” And they added that while “some proposals in our program are applicable in Quebec as a province, we have to imagine what the victorious struggle for Quebec’s political freedom would unleash in popular optimism and passion, and the extent of the mobilization that such freedom would allow in the overall reappropriation of our country.”

To which the ON members added: “If the QS program were clarified along the lines of an immediate mobilization for the political independence of Quebec that would distance it from the PQ’s hesitant posture on this issue, and a fusion between our two parties would become realistic and necessary.”[10]

Since it does not frame its program within the perspective of what an independent Quebec could do, Québec solidaire has tended, in the three general elections since its founding in 2006, to campaign as a “provincial” party, limiting its proposals to what is possible within the limited jurisdiction of the province. This approach severely limits the radical potential of its emancipatory message.

Within Québec solidaire there has been little critical discussion of its program on the referendum and constituent assembly other than a few blog posts by the current chair of the party’s theme commission on “Strategy for Sovereignty,” Jonathan Durand-Folco, and a few responses by other bloggers. In a post dated June 27, 2014 Durand-Folco reports that his commission has been asking for a review of program to specify that the mandate of the proposed constituent assembly would be to draft the constitution of an independent Quebec, in order to avoid the possibility that the assembly would instead draft a “provincial” constitution.[11] (This debate, previously scheduled for the party’s National Council meeting in November, has now been postponed indefinitely by its National Coordinating Committee.)

The discussion so far has reflected QS members’ concerns to reconcile its concept of a prior and agnostic constituent assembly with the party’s own preference for sovereignty. One novel, but naïve, approach suggests that the assembly “be assigned to develop two proposed constitutions: one national [i.e. an independent Quebec], the other provincial,” both of which would be put before voters in a subsequent referendum for them to choose. “This formula,” writes Benoit Renaud, “would allow for serene and constructive debates in the Constituent Assembly and prepare the ground for a respectful and enlightening referendum campaign.” And if the voters opted for a provincial constitution? “It would be a solid point of departure for demanding the transfer to Quebec of new powers and [the creation of] asymmetrical federalism.”

The latter proposal is unlikely to have much traction with independence supporters. There is no getting around the need for Québec solidaire to adopt independence as its strategic focus, not just one of its founding “values,” and to think of its entire program in terms of what a truly independent Quebec could do – opening the way to an independent and solidaristic international policy, nationalization of banking and finance, substitution of a popular militia for the army, an ecosocialist approach to economic development and the rapid phasing out of fossil fuel dependency, establishment of French as the common language of public discourse, etc., etc. And to take that program into the social movements, including the trade unions, as a tool to engage with their members and advance the movements toward political power in an independent state.

3. Alliances and united front

The latest public opinion poll, released September 27, found that 40 per cent of Quebec voters would vote yes in a referendum on sovereignty, a rise of 10 points among those 18-24 years of age. “This may be a consequence of the frenzy that surrounded the referendum in Scotland” during the previous week, says pollster Jean-Marc Léger. But half of those who declare themselves sovereigntists no longer support the Parti québécois. These figures point to the importance of alliances among the pro-independence forces (and not just the parties) in the next referendum.

Québec solidaire participates in the present umbrella coalition, the Conseil de la souveraineté du Québec. And it has clearly and correctly rejected electoral alliances with the PQ. However, the new constellation of sovereigntist forces presents Québec solidaire with the potential to play a more important role in putting progressive content into the campaign – just as, in Scotland, the Radical Independence Campaign was instrumental in building popular support for the Yes. As Hilary Wainwright reported:[12]

“It is a strikingly generous-spirited, creative, diverse and plural movement, with a concentrated sense of common purpose. It has many platforms, including both the official Yes Campaign of politicians and national organizations and the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), whose volunteers have canvassed working-class communities that have been ignored by politicians for decades.

“A variety of different campaigns bring different constituencies to the activities of RIC: the energetic, always-present Women for Independence; the strategically vital Labour for Independence, which now has the support of many of Labour’s leading figures. Then there is the Jimmy Reid Foundation, an influential think tank committed to action as well as words….

“All these tributaries feed a populist movement that does without a charismatic leader. It is a populism organized through and around the people, in all their particularity. Its power lies in its many voices, in conversation with each other and with strangers, and the way that the Radical Independence Campaign takes a critique of some ghastly feature of UK government policy or structure and then turns the argument powerfully toward a fresh new perspective and positive solution.

“An argument for independence based on escaping the London housing bubble, for example, becomes the positive case for Scotland to have the macro-economic powers to create a new kind of sustainable economy, creating socially useful jobs and based on a variety of forms of economic democracy.

“Similarly, from a critique of Britain’s imperial role in the world and the one-dimensional nature of Scotland’s international relations so long as Scotland is part of the union, radical supporters of independence move to a liberating vision of the opportunities opened up by joining a network of nations. They explore a wide range of collaborations which take the debate far beyond the notion of ’separation’ and a single, closed, national sovereignty.”

It need only be added that a powerful mobilization for national independence and progressive social change in Quebec would most likely inspire solidarity and support in English Canada among working people. This could be crucially important in thwarting the federalist offensive against Quebec independence and fostering a radical politicization in “the Rest of Canada.”

For further reading, I highly recommend the collection of articles in Links, international journal of socialist renewal. •

A version of this article was first published on his blog Life on the Left.


For background information on the Radical Independence Campaign, see “Campaign launched for a radical vision of Scottish independence.”

Murray Smith, “Scotland: Independence loss contains seeds of future victory.”

For a list of institutions and individuals for and against independence, see “List of endorsements in the Scottish independence referendum, 2014.”

For an early report, see “Thousands join pro-independence parties following referendum.”

op. cit.

See, for example, “Massive demonstration of up to two million for independence in Catalonia.”

François Brousseau, “N’oubliez pas la Catalogne.” For an informative account of the Catalan independence movement, see Dick Nichols, “Catalonia and the Spanish state on collision course.”

Le retour des nations.” Rioux is the author of a book on minority nations in Europe (and the Navajo nation in the USA), Voyage à l’intérieur des petites nations (Boréal, 2000).

For a full discussion, see “The NDP revisits the Clarity Act.”

See “Une conjoncture, ça se crée.”

Jonathan Durand-Folco, “L’hypothèse du double mandat comme radicalisation de l’Assemblée constituante.”

Hilary Wainwright, “September 18 referendum in Scotland: Independence without borders.” (Footnotes omitted.)

Richard Fidler is a member of Solidarity Ottawa and a member of Québec solidaire. He blogs at Life on the Left.