10 lessons for Canadians from the Scottish referendum

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The Scottish independence referendum offered Canadians lessons on democracy and nation.

1. Fully 87 per cent of eligible voters exercised their democratic franchise. Most impressively, 97 per cent of Scots registered to vote. Canadians turnout rates for federal elections have declined from the 80 per cent range to about 60 per cent. The Canadian permanent voter list inspires little confidence. Lower turnout rates equate with less democracy.

2. No vote backers were shocked as support for the Yes side moved from 30 per cent to its final 45 per cent, and briefly flirted with 51 per cent. The full-bore PR campaign of fear run throughout the last 10 days of the referendum campaign was decisive in reducing the Yes vote total. Scottish nationalists were defeated by big business acting to protect privileged positions within the U.K. state. 

3. The two strong Yes cities of Dundee and Glasgow both had turnouts below the national average. Corporate political campaigns work through intimidation. Supermarket chains claimed prices would go up after Scottish independence. It's a win for corporate political action when people stay home rather than vote their choice. The left only wins when citizens engage with the political process and gain confidence that change can be achieved.

4. The powers-that-be in this world do not hesitate to intervene in political contests. Big banks, insurance companies, the oil industry, and large commercial concerns know that who governs matters. The same corporate interests dominate Canadian politics. Social movements, non-governmental organizations, and trade unions have work to do if they want to influence electoral outcomes when facing wealthy adversaries who play for keeps. Increasing the voter turnout rate for elections is imperative. Women, trade unionists and other political activists fought hard to win the vote. The importance of democratic expression needs to be much more widely understood.

5. Quebec versus Canada, Scotland versus the U.K., the situations are too different for the analogy to carry much weight in assessing what was at stake in the Scots' referendum. Canada is a federal state with a constitutional separation of powers, the U.K. is a unitary state without constitutionally enshrined levels of government. The U.K. has never denied recognition of Scottish national character, unlike Canada, where Quebec historically was called a province like the others. Scotland is geographically separate from the rest of the U.K., Quebec sits in the middle of Canada.

6. In federal states, governments see themselves as sovereign in their own areas of jurisdiction. In Canada the issue of which government gets to do what can get very controversial, even when it looks cut and dried. Recourse to the courts is often needed to adjudicate differences. Continued federal provincial conflict over issues such as how to conduct a referendum is to be expected. The Scottish parliament is a creation of the U.K. parliament, which retains a right to override Scots' legislation, creating tensions -- given the democratic legitimacy of the parliament elected by Scots.

7. The September 18 vote was in fact a U.K. referendum on Scottish independence with only Scots voting. It took place in a unitary state which has created parliaments for the three national minority regions (Wales and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland) but not for the English nation which makes up the vast majority of the U.K. In Canada, linguistic divisions between francophone and anglophone complicate any talk of a Canadian nation. Official language minority rights for francophones are guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Only Quebec has a francophone majority, and only New Brunswick is officially bilingual.

8. The government of Quebec called two referendums without seeking any consent, approval or co-operation from the central government. After the very close second referendum in 1995, the federal government brought in referendum legislation, the so-called Clarity Act without consent, approval, or co-operation from the provinces.

9. The Scottish referendum had a clear question. It was agreed to in advance by both sides, as was the margin of victory: a simple majority vote of 50 plus one. Canadian journalists who ambushed Jack Layton after the 2011 election NDP breakthrough in Quebec, taunting him about the NDP Sherbrooke Declaration and its 50-plus-one pledge remained strangely silent about the U.K. 50-plus-one rule. Will Tom Mulcair have to answer the same questions about referendum majorities? Will they disappear from Liberal talking points?

10. Quebec and Scotland looked to gain independence and called for referendums to achieve their goal. Accepting the referendum outcome does not mean dreams of independence die. As Winnie Ewing (a.k.a. Madame Écosse), the first Scottish Nationalist to be elected, put it, that was not the last Scottish referendum on independence, it was the first.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs. He was in Scotland to cover the referendum debate for rabble.ca.

Photo: P M M/flickr

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