Europe

Nicola Sturgeon’s independence plan undermined by Quebec’s failed breakaway bid

Nicola Sturgeon says there’s a ‘choice between two futures’

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Scotland’s First Minister Ms Sturgeon has declared that she now has a “mandate” from Scottish voters to push ahead with Indyref2 once the pressures of the pandemic have subsided. She believes the pro-independence majority of MSPs elected to Holyrood earlier in May demonstrate that the electorate want another chance to vote on their future in the UK. However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has rejected her plea for Downing Street to pass over the constitutional powers, which would allow her to hold another referendum.

He has declared it to be “irresponsible and reckless” to consider holding another referendum, especially as the first vote on the matter — dubbed a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity — occurred in 2014.

That referendum saw 55 percent of voters support staying in the Union, with the highest turnout ever recorded for a UK public vote at 84.6 percent.

However, the Scottish National Party (SNP) argue that Brexit will have swayed more Scots to support the independence movement, as a majority of them voted to remain in the EU back in 2016.

This timeline of events is curiously similar to the breakaway bid which took off in Quebec back in the Eighties but ended up failing— meaning Downing Street will be able to look to this example in its attempts to curb the Scottish independence movement.

The French-speaking province lies in the east of Canada, where the leader of Parti Quebecois (PQ), called Rene Levesque, wanted to create a new French-speaking nation.

However, when Quebec’s citizens hit the ballot box in 1980, only 40 percent voted to split from Canada.

Journalist Mark McLaughlin noted how Ms Sturgeon is currently “stuck in a similar halfway point to the one that PQ found itself in during the late Eighties”.

However, while Indyref2 is yet to be granted approval, Quebec managed to secure a second referendum albeit 15 years after the first.

But, the independence campaigners then missed their target by half a percentage point, meaning their breakaway bid failed again.

Enthusiasm for the cause subsequently waned, according to Mr McLaughlin.

However, the journalist did point out a key difference; Quebec’s leader in the independence campaign, Mr Levesque, did not resign after the first failed referendum, unlike the SNP’s former leader Alex Salmond.

Writing for The Scottish Times, he said: “[Levesque’s] constitutional inertia eventually consigned the PQ to the electoral wilderness for almost a decade.

“He put independence on the back burner and was defeated in the National Assembly elections in 1985.”

But even a change of leader for the 1995 referendum was not even to get the independence bid over the line.

Indeed, Ms Sturgeon’s takeover from Mr Salmond in 2014 injected fresh energy into the campaign for Scottish independence.

And, just as Brexit proved to be the key to reviving her campaign altogether, Quebec nationalists’ disappointment that the federal government’s 1987 promise to give the region a “distinct identity” failed to galvanise the cause, too.

Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, Daniel Beland, said that UK unionists should have realised from Quebec that “you can lead the polls at the start of a referendum campaign but things can turn against you by the end”.

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But, it’s worth noting, Quebec’s second referendum still did not lead to a breakaway, as 50.58 percent of voters opted to remain while 49.42 percent chose to leave.

Beland said that Prime Minister Boris Johnson should “reach out” to Jean Chretien, then-Canadian Prime Minister, to “seek advice on how to deal with Scottish nationalism”.

The Clarity Act — introduced by Quebec’s National Assembly in 2000 — laid the groundwork for any future breakaway attempts, and stated that any future public vote on the matter had to have the federal government’s approval.

It is said to have inspired the Edinburgh Agreement, which saw Westminster hand over some power temporarily to Holyrood so that the first independence referendum could take place.

Professor of political science in Montreal, Eric Belanger, also described the Edinburgh Agreement as “a possible obstacle” for Ms Sturgeon’s bid, because it set a precedent that referendums can only take place with Westminster’s approval.

Ms Sturgeon also wants to muster up support for a second referendum in half the amount of time it took for PQ to do the same back in the Eighties.

What’s more, support for Scottish independence has fallen to its lowest levels since 2019, according to a Savanta ComRes poll published in April.

It found 42 percent of those interviewed would vote ‘Yes’ while 49 percent would mark ‘No’ on the ballot paper – and a crucial eight percent remained undecided.

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