MONTREAL - Until the Parti Québécois was defeated last April, Scotland’s September 18 referendum on independence loomed large on the sovereignty calendar.
From the moment it was scheduled, PQ strategists believed the Scottish campaign — coming as they thought it would at the dawn of a majority mandate for their party — would put sovereignty back on the Quebec radar.
It might have accomplished that but almost certainly not in the way that the sovereigntist brain trust hoped for.
The reality is that the Scottish campaign, regardless of its outcome, would more likely have acted as a deterrent to a repeat Quebec referendum than as an accelerant for the sovereignty agenda.
By almost any measure, holding a Quebec referendum within the terms of engagement of that taking place in Scotland would be a prescription for a decisive sovereigntist defeat.
That starts with the question on the ballot in Scotland next month.
In contrast with the 1980 and 1995 Quebec questions, it puts the option of independence squarely to voters — without the bells and whistles of a hypothetical post-yes association with the United Kingdom.
There is a simple reason why Quebecers were never asked directly whether they wanted their province to become a country. The chances of a positive answer would have ranged from slim to none in both 1980 and 1995.
The wording of Scotland’s question was cleared by both Westminster and Edinburgh’s parliaments as part of a larger agreement that would see a simple majority victory trigger independence-related negotiations. (The same agreement binds Scotland’s U.K. partners to the referendum spending rules enacted in Edinburgh.)
To this day, Quebec’s sovereigntist leaders reject the notion that Canada’s Parliament is entitled to any input into the modalities of a referendum or the framework of the negotiations that could follow.
While they have castigated the federal clarity act for leaving it to the Canadian government to decide, after the fact, whether to act on a Quebec yes result, none has endorsed the principle of a consensual alternative.
In Scotland as in Quebec, political control over a people’s collective destiny is the main attraction promoted by the yes camp.
The argument that an independent Scotland would no longer risk having to put up with a central government imposed upon it by a plurality of other U.K. voters was front and centre in the debate that took place on Tuesday.
But at least as far as Quebec is concerned, it is far from clear that the argument has legs sturdy enough to carry the day in a referendum truly focused on independence and its potentially larger economic perils.
For a long time, Quebec sovereigntists thought that the advent of a non-Quebec prime minister with little or no power base in the province and little policy appeal would help their cause.
Almost a decade into the rule of such a federal government under Stephen Harper, support for sovereignty has sagged.
With a bit more than 40 days to go, polls suggest that it is not a given that Scotland voters will fulfil the hopes of Quebec sovereigntists and give independence the nod next month.
Even if they do, it will be impossible to divorce the outcome of the vote from the rigorous process — by Quebec’s past standards — that led to it or from the result of the eighteen months of negotiations on the terms of Scotland’s exit from the U.K. that will follow.
Bernard Drainville, the former PQ minister who spearheaded the secularism charter implicitly acknowledged as much upon his return from a summer pilgrimage to Scotland.
Drainville, who is widely expected to run for the party’s leadership, said his trip had convinced him of the necessity of a clear referendum question (if not yet to that of agreeing on some ground rules with the federal government.)
A more single-minded PQ focus on independence should appeal to the mostly diehard sovereigntists who will select the next PQ leader. But whether that would also be true of Quebec at large remains to be seen.
On balance, the example set in Scotland this summer stands to make selling Quebecers on a yes vote to independence a more exacting challenge.