Scots give Britain taste of separatism

17. Actualité archives 2007

As goes Scotland, so goes Quebec? Cross-national comparisons are always dodgy, so not too much attention should be paid to the fact that some striking similarities have developed in the political condition of these two nations, or associated states, or whatever it is that may now be the correct description for them.
Definitely remarkable, and well worth pondering for possible transatlantic implications, is that it has suddenly become entirely plausible that it will be Scotland, rather than Quebec, that is the first to do a constitutional Full Monty and go all the way to independence.
On May 2, elections will be held to choose members to Scotland's 8-year-old local parliament.
It's all but certain that the pro-independence Scottish National Party will win that election.
In itself, this result will mostly represent a rejection of the Labour party that now governs Britain, and most particularly of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Moreover, the SNP won't win a majority - a virtual impossibility for any party because of the election system of proportional representation.
But this will be the first time that the SNP has ever formed the government.
And it's committed to holding an election on independence within three years, that is, by 2010.
Scotland at that time will thus be about where Quebec was in 1980 when the Parti Quebecois followed up its first-ever victory by holding a referendum on sovereignty-association (it lost). Today, support in Scotland for outright independence is lower - at around 25 per cent to 30 per cent in the polls - than it was then in Quebec.
Here, the national comparisons start to diverge.
For one thing, the Scots, if they ever do leave Britain, won't be alone.
They'd still be part of the European Union, of which close to half the 26 member-states have populations smaller than Scotland's 5 million.
Very cannily, SNP Leader Alex Salmond has said that a separate Scotland would keep the Queen and the pound sterling.
The most significant difference is that between the Rest of Canada and what could be called the Rest of Britain.
In 1980, and again in the second, almost-lost referendum of 1995, Canadians were committed passionately to doing whatever they could to keep Quebec within Canada.
The attitude of the English today is, instead, decidedly ho-hum. According to the polls, a majority say they'd feel no deep pain if the Scots do ever go.
Attitudes may change when the threat of Scottish independence becomes immediate rather than futuristic.
But the absence of concern, let alone of passion, is striking. It has to be relevant that Scotland is on the edge of Britain rather than, like Quebec, in the middle of the country.
Relevant, also, is that the Scots are the big winners in the present system. Spending by the British government is far higher in Scotland - about $3,000 more per person - than in England.
Salmond's rejoinder is that the North Sea oil, always called "Scotland's oil," more than compensates for this benefit. All of which precipitates an incomprehensible political argument, rather like our own, over the so-called "fiscal imbalance."
What grates the English even more is what is being called a "political imbalance." The Scottish parliament deals with a range of local matters, such as education, over which the English, quite properly, have no say.
At the "national" British Parliament at Westminster, though, Scottish MPs have the same voting and other powers as do English MPs over all national matters, including education - for the English. Blair, himself born and educated in Scotland, is virtually certain to be succeeded by a Scot, namely Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.
This imbalance now thoroughly annoys the English. In fact, the identical imbalance exists in Canada.
Here, though, it has never been a political issue. The reason may be Canadians' commitment to "saving Canada." It may also be that there's no equivalent here to the support of Scots for whichever team is playing against England, as in last year's World Cup soccer championship.
Cross-national comparisons really are always dodgy. But they are worth pondering.
In particular, it's worth pondering the fact that Quebec is planning to hold a conference of "nations" that are not yet independent nation-states.
Among these will be Catalonia and Wales and, as the certain star of the meeting, Scotland.
Richard Gwyn's column appears Tuesdays. gwynR @

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