EDINBURGH - Britain is offering more constitutional powers to Scotland quickly after the referendum to avoid making the same mistakes Canada did in dealing with Quebec separatism, says Westminster’s Secretary for Scotland, Alistair Carmichael.
“I draw very heavily on the experience of our friends in Canada and the fact that they ended up going round this process not once but twice,” Carmichael said on Friday in a post-referendum briefing to media in Edinburgh.
“They ended up going through it a second time (in 1995) because they didn’t deliver on the promises of reform that were made in 1980.”
This is why British Prime Minister David Cameron issued an immediate post-referendum timetable on shifting powers and sweeping constitutional reform in the United Kingdom, Carmichael said.
“We have a need to cement in the No vote that we have just been given by the people of Scotland,” Carmichael said.
For all Britain’s efforts to avoid Canada’s referendum missteps, Carmichael acknowledged that the U.K. did get thrown off by the surge of emotion and nationalism in the final weeks of the Scottish referendum, just as federalists did in the Quebec referendum of 1995.
“Did we make some of the same mistakes as you? Yes we probably did,” Carmichael said.
“I was very aware of that because I’d been over (to Canada) and I’d spoken to people who had been part of your referendum campaigns.”
No matter how prepared the No side thought they were, he said, they found themselves on the same emotional roller-coaster ride that Canada experienced in 1995.
“Again, drawing on the experience of our friends in Canada, we knew that there would be a big injection of emotion in the last week or two weeks and we saw that actually happen.” Carmichael said that he had experienced many sleepless nights during the final weeks of the referendum, even if he had been warned it would be that tough.
In one of his recent trips to Canada, Carmichael sat down with many of the leading figures from the 1995 referendum, including former prime minister Jean Chretien, with whom the Scottish Secretary has been consulting regularly.
“The strong opinion I came away from is that you ended up back in this situation in 1995 because you didn’t deliver on the promises of reform in 1980,” Carmichael said. “So whatever mistakes we made in the campaign, I’m quite clear that in order to avoid coming back to here, our first priority is to deliver the reform we’ve promised.”
Quebec’s 1995 referendum was also on Britain’s mind long before the referendum, he said, especially with regard to a clear question. Scotland’s referendum ballot contained just six words: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” – a big contrast from the long, complex question that Quebecers were asked in 1995.
Carmichael said that if Scots had been asked to choose from an array of arrangements with Britain, for instance, such as a large devolution of powers (nicknamed “devo-max”), the post-referendum path wouldn’t be clear.
“This is a very strong lesson from the Canadian experience — the question has got to be simple and clear and one question, in order to be legal, fair and decisive.”
Carmichael wanted to leave campaign post-mortems for another day.
“I don’t think this is the time to start beating ourselves up about the campaign. We got what we wanted out of it at the end of the day,” he said.
Carmichael sits as an MP for the Scottish riding of Orkney and Shetland in Westminster — regions that voted No in the referendum — and is Secretary for Scotland in Cameron’s coalition government.
In Canada, meanwhile, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government — which made no secret of its desire for a No vote — issued a celebratory statement on Friday after Scotland’s referendum result was official..
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, in a statement, declared:
“The peaceful, open and democratic way in which two very different but sincere views was handled is a credit to the Scottish and U.K. governments.
“Canada welcomes this decision. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper said during the campaign, the United Kingdom has been an overwhelmingly positive force in the world.