What Quebec can learn from Scotland

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

The open letter sent by former Quebec premier Bernard Landry to Stephen Harper last week brought forth a snort of disbelief from me -- as I suspect it did from other Scots and, for all I know, Catalonians. In it, Landry said that Quebec was in search of its sovereignty, "like Scotland or Catalonia," as if both of these jurisdictions were havens of freedom compared to his own garrison province.
In reality, Quebec has more sovereignty than Scotland, particularly in areas such as taxation, energy and immigration.
Devolution, introduced by Tony Blair's U.K. government eight years ago, has yielded few tangible benefits. And rather than satisfying demands for self-government, it merely has spurred more demands. The Labour-dominated government in Edinburgh has intimated that its reforms are being held back by too much power residing in Westminster.
Perhaps this explains why two-thirds of respondents in a recent poll for the London-based Sunday Times were in favour of more powers being devolved to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. Polls in advance of next year's Scottish elections show the separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) neck and neck with Labour, and a small majority in favour of outright independence.
The Act of Union between Scotland and England is 300 years old next year, but there is every prospect it may not celebrate its 301st birthday. Since the Times poll last month, the SNP has held a successful conference, where the party's leader, Alex Salmond, a charismatic 55-year-old economist, called for the break-up of Britain. His position is supported by the Greens and the Socialists, who are both represented at Holyrood.
Nobody would ever accuse former prime minister John Major of being a visionary, but he seems to have nailed it when he said that a vote for devolution would send Scotland "sleepwalking towards independence."
This is unlikely to happen in the short term, unless the nascent backlash against devolution in England becomes more widespread. Currently, resentment against the "Scottish Raj" is limited to columnists in the Daily Telegraph and some more vocal Conservative MPs.
They have some grounds for complaint. There are currently eight Scots in Cabinet, including the Edinburgh-born and educated Blair, his heir apparent Gordon Brown and Brown's only real rival, Home Secretary John Reid. Under devolution, Reid can influence changes in policing policy in England, but not in his own riding in Scotland. Labour insists it does not want to create two classes of MP by barring Scots from voting on wholly English matters, but this is a self-serving argument. SNP MPs and the lone Scots Tory at Westminster already recuse themselves from voting on English legislation.
Boris Johnson, the shadow minister for higher education, is right to call for fundamental reform in this area. But he goes too far when he says that Brown should be denied a term as Prime Minister "mainly because he is a Scot, and government by a Scot is not conceivable in the present constitutional context."
Even staunch unionists like my father concede this would break the union: "The Scots would just say 'what's the point of sending anyone to Westminster?'"
So what's all this got to do with Canada, you might ask? Michael Ignatieff's call to recognize Quebec as a nation sounds an awful lot like the devolution industry's insatiable demand for ever more power. Ignatieff's position has provoked three responses: that this is merely a "gesture of goodwill," as Andre Pratte of La Presse puts it; Landry's contention that recognition would lead to Quebec asking why it should be satisfied with the status of being a province in another nation; and Stephane Dion's stance that recognition may be "desirable," but is not "necessary."
Bearing in mind the Scottish precedent, where the parliament has been as satisfying as rice cakes and left a gnawing hunger for more power, Pratte's assertion can be dismissed. It seems to me that Dion is correct when he points out it is a contradiction to say that recognition is necessary but would be merely symbolic.
Neither in Scotland nor in Quebec are the circumstances present to justify the ugly emotions and recriminations that would be unleashed by renewed constitutional tinkering.
There is, though, one important area where the two cases diverge. Landry argues that for Quebec to be a true nation it needs to be recognized by the rest of Canada in the way that Madrid recognizes the Catalans and the English refer to Scotland as a nation. By contrast, the Scots are arguing about hard-headed matters of power and influence: They know they are a nation and they don't give a tossed caber what the Sassanachs think.

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