IF you want to see a proper grown-up relationship between a “sub-national” government and a central administration you could look no further than Quebec within the Canadian Federation. Quebec proudly guards its special status within Canada and asserts its rights as a “nation within a nation” without question or compromise. It is an arrangement that seems all of the whole 3000 miles away from Scotland within the UK.
I was in Canada chairing a Scottish Affairs Committee visit last week and was part of the highest-level conversations about how Canada’s federal arrangements work across this huge nation, with its 10 provincial governments and three territories. We were there to discuss inter-governmental relations as we conclude our inquiry marking 20 years of devolution.
We also wanted to examine other features of provincial powers such as immigration and the role of sub-national governments in negotiating bilateral trade deals. It was fascinating and revealing stuff. This is my personal account of some of the issues in our visit.
The first obvious feature to observe is that Canada is a federation. Its constitutional arrangements are therefore designed entirely differently from the centralised UK state, with its strange version of asymmetric devolution. Canada claims to be the most decentralised nation in the developed world, and looking at its constitution, this is an assertion it would be difficult to take issue with. Where there are the obvious tensions over finance and powers (as the number of constitutional cases taken to their Supreme Court testify) there seems to mainly be a negotiated way through based on goodwill and mutual respect.
Talking of tensions immediately brings us back to Quebec. In order to secure the relative peace between Quebec and federal Canada, two independence referendums were required with the last settled by a few thousand votes and less than 1% of the huge 93.5 % turnout.
That was in 1995, and almost 25 years later the independence movement remains diminished – with the party of independence, the Parti Quebecois, languishing with 9 out of the available 125 members of the Quebec provincial government. They are currently selecting a new leader and uncertain whether they are a party of the left or right. Young Quebecers now increasingly identify themselves as pan-Canadian and PQ’s support seems to be dependent on the 1990s sovereignist generation.
The spectacular fall of the Party Quebecios, and its federal equivalent the Bloc Quebecois, is a salutary lesson to those who believe that a second referendum defeat would be consequence-free here.
Quebec is not Scotland, though. The Quebec independence movement is primarily fired by its francophone cultural agenda and differs significantly from the “civic nationalism” that underpins Scotland’s independence ambitions. Canada is also not the UK. In narrowly winning the referendum, Canada went out of its way to ensure that Quebec’s agenda was properly addressed and that its special status was properly acknowledged.
Contrast that to the UK who after promising a similar “near federalism” immediately set about the task of emasculating Scottish MPs with EVEL (English votes for English laws), before repatriating powers that should have ordinarily come to Scotland whilst examining how it can assert itself over a recalcitrant nation.
Back to 2019. Canada and the skyline of Montreal is practically covered in cranes building the new infrastructure required to support the unprecedented economic growth that is currently being experienced in Quebec. They now have powers over immigration bringing in the people and skills required to support a booming economy and address demographic issues on a par with the perilous situation we face in Scotland.
International students attracted to Quebec’s universities aren’t given immediate notice to leave following their studies but instead encouraged to stay and contribute to the growing economy. Their Department of Immigration told us that 60% of responsibilities over immigration now reside at Quebec provincial level. In discussing the CETA and Nafta trade talks Quebec and other provincial governments were in the next room asserting their provincial interests and ensuring that trade arrangements meet the requirements of all the provinces.
Believe it or not, Quebec also has the power to decide if it wants to hold another independence referendum! Responsibility over its own democracy more than anything else demonstrates the respect Quebec is now shown from federal Canada. Where Canada reached out to Quebec the UK almost seems to enjoy an approach which could only be described as passive provocation.
What about securing the federation enjoyed in Canada? Well, where the debate about federalism regularly crops up in Scotland its proponents don’t seem to properly understand what real federalism is or suggest a way how it could be applied across a United Kingdom of four nations where England provides about 90% of the population.
What is absolutely certain is that Quebec has an arrangement that is way beyond anything enjoyed by the “most powerful devolved parliament in the world”.
Where Quebec provides an intriguing example of another nation engaged in a conversation about its independence, the differences are all too real. The UK could never make the accommodations that have been offered to Quebec and it could never progress to a state of federation like that enjoyed across Canada.
The one real lesson that we can take away from Quebec is that we simply cannot lose another referendum. Looking at the condition of the independence movement in Quebec, there seems no clear way forward or real hope of resurrecting that spark after 25 years. Looking at the reasons behind its collapse there is no reason to suspect that a second referendum defeat would not be similarly near-fatal to the independence movement here in Scotland.
Scotland has only one more chance of becoming anything like Quebec and that is to end its current constitutional arrangements with the UK by becoming a self-governing independent nation.
For us there is no other way and that possible one last chance simply can not be lost.