Say 'Non': Quebec referendum offers lessons for pro-union UK leaders

Fri Sep 12, 2014 8:56am EDT
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By Randall Palmer and David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian politicians who almost saw their country torn apart by an independence referendum in 1995 say pro-union British leaders have been slow to learn lessons from that campaign but can still take steps to win the vote Scotland will hold on Sept. 18.

In a campaign with striking similarities to the Scottish vote, the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec came within a whisker of deciding to split up Canada in the 1995 referendum, which saw support for separatism spike in the final week.

In both cases an energetic Yes camp led by a charismatic figure overshadowed the No campaign, while each country's prime minister stayed on the sidelines in the belief too much involvement could fuel nationalist passions.

But in an echo of Prime Minister Jean Chretien's frantic and emotional last-minute push for unity in 1995, British Prime Minister David Cameron rushed to Edinburgh this week to make a passionate appeal for the Scots to stay in Britain.

Veterans of Quebec's two referendums on independence said this kind of push by Cameron should have been considered sooner but that there was still time to prevent the breakup of the United Kingdom.

They are bemused by the intense focus on the negative consequences of a Yes vote on Scotland's economy, given what they see as a failure by pro-union leaders to balance those warnings with an appeal to Scots' pride in Britain.

"Pride is the key aspect of the vote. It's not the only one, but if you give up this dimension of the debate, you're in trouble," said former Liberal party leader Stephane Dion, who as a member of the Liberal government in 1996 pushed through an act making it more difficult for provinces to secede.

In both the Canadian and UK cases, the No camp warned about the costs and the potential loss of the national currency but found its message swamped by emotional calls for independence. Once-comfortable polling leads for unity evaporated.   Continued...

A "NO" supporter reacting from a moving car while taking his message through the streets of down town Montreal, Quebec, in this October 30, 1995 file photo.  REUTERS/Mike Blake/Files