Insight: Quebec lessons for Scotland in how to pop the question

Fri Feb 10, 2012 8:17am EST
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By Randall Palmer

OTTAWA (Reuters) - For Brits grappling with the idea of Scottish independence, it may be worth looking across the Atlantic.

In 1995, residents of Quebec voted on whether the province should separate from Canada. That referendum - narrowly won by the pro-Canada camp with just 50.6 percent of the vote - has an important lesson for Scots keen to end Scotland's 300-year union with England, and for the British establishment, which wants them to stay: the wording of the referendum question and the rules around it can help determine whether the country will stay in one piece.

"It was very, very tense. It was our future. It was our national identity at stake," recalls anglophone Quebec native Pauline Morasse, 58, who said she and her francophone husband Bernard have deep attachments both to Quebec and Canada.

"We're both Quebecois and Canadian, and to have to sever one of those identities would have been like a divorce," she said. When the 'no' side finally won, she said she felt relief, "almost disbelieving that we had come that rupture."

Rattled by the close result, the Canadian government passed what it called the Clarity Act, which says Canada can only be broken up if a clear majority of voters - an undefined level but well over half - answers a clearly stated question in the affirmative.

"It's a huge decision," said Stephane Dion, a political scientist recruited into cabinet after the referendum to draft the new legislation.

"It's not a decision to choose a government, where you may change your mind five years later," he said. "No, for a referendum about belonging to a country, you're voting in some ways for your children, your grandchildren and the next generations. So it's very important that clarity is protected under these circumstances."

"DUTY TO BE FREE"   Continued...

<p>Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond waves to supporters after his speech during their annual conference in Inverness, Scotland October 22, 2011. REUTERS/David Moir/Files</p>