Sovereigntist convergence in Scotland and Québec

The blue and white flags of Québec (L) and Scotland (R).

The blue and white flags of Québec (L) and Scotland (R). []

The prospects of independence for Scotland and Québec could not be more different in September 2014, and nor could the fortunes of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Parti Québecois (PQ). While Scotland stands on the verge of independence with the ‘Yes’ campaign now neck and neck with ‘Better Together’ in the polls, Québec’s main nationalist party was decimated in the provincial elections earlier this year – though it is unclear if this was this was the result of a decline in nationalist sentiment, or rather a damning referendum on Pauline Marois minority PQ administration. Irrespective of the differing political situations, the two independence movements have converged around similar tactics and ideas, and continue to move closer together in terms of positioning. Both have adopted what political scientist Michael Keating calls the new nationalism, embodying different ideologies to the classical nationalisms of old – one that embraces the logic of modern global capitalism and its institutions, thus often appearing to be in conflict with the traditional aims of independence and sovereignty. [1] The differences that do remain between Scotland and Québec’s nationalists are for the most part due to the different dynamics that make up the complex interfaces between the two nations and their respective host states – historical, cultural, linguistic, and economic.

The interactions that Scotland and Québec engage in with their respective host states differ greatly. Perhaps the most important difference between the Scotland-UK interface and that of Québec-Canada is historical: specifically, how the two came to be subsumed into the larger national body. That the history books tell of Québec’s ‘Conquest’ and Scotland’s ‘integration’ through the mutually beneficial Treaty of Union (1707) is telling, and remains relevant in the different relationships the independence movements have within the wider nations, with Québec nationalism taking a more combative stance. While the Conquest instilled in many French-Québeckers the idea of la survivance, premised according to Francois-Pierre Gingras and Neil Nevitte around the notion that “Québec’s national culture faces continual threats”, Scottish nationalists’ sense of threat from the rest of the United Kingdom – or rather England – has been, and continues to be, far less severe.[2] The tumult of the 1760 Conquest, a major event in Québec and Canadian history and an integral part of the Québecois identity, is also mirrored by the tumult of the Quiet Revolution in the nineteen-sixties. While Québec underwent a period of radical social change following industrialisation and the collapse of the old church authority – a period that included FLQ paramilitary activity and culminated in a PQ administration – Scotland did not go through dramatic social or political upheaval. Though Scotland did also see post-war attitudinal shifts, its big movement occurred long after Québec’s, and for very different reasons. Between 1979 and 1997, Conservative rule from Westminster and its policies of privatisation and centralisation faced great opposition north of the border. While Québec was by this stage asserting itself and moving away from being simply a periphery economy in relation to Canada’s Anglo core, Scotland – once a wealthy benefactor of empire – was seemingly becoming more and more marginalised on the periphery of the British economy, with profits from resources, such as North Sea oil, exiting south of the border. London’s strengthened financial dominance in the neoliberal era has been answered by the rise of nationalism in Scotland – as Murray Stewart Leith and Daniel Soule assert in their research, “the rejection of Thatcher has served to underpin a sense of Scottish identity in the past three decades”.[3] Actually, it turned out to be a rejection of Thacher-ism, with Holyrood representatives from both the SNP and Scottish Labour dismissing various private-partnership schemes of the New Labour government between 1997 and 2010.  Québecois fervour and Scottish gradualism are further reflected in the early fortunes of the PQ and the SNP. PQ, founded in 1968, formed its first provincial administration just six years later in 1976, causing shockwaves in Canada by winning 40% of the votes.[4] The SNP took seventy-three years from its conception to replace the Labour Party as the major force in Scottish politics. Although devolution did not take place until the late nineteen-nineties, this nevertheless speaks volumes about the gradual development of nationalist sentiment in Scotland in comparison with the more explosive situation in Québec.

Another divergent factor between the two independence movements, and the interface with their respective host states, is language. For over 80% of Québeckers, French is the first language.[5] While language is one of the most significant markers of identity in Québec, in Scotland it is not at all a major factor. In the 2001 census, only 58,650 people, or 1.2% of the population, spoke the Gaelic language.[6] One hundred years ago 5.2% could speak the language, indicating a steady decline.[7] The lack of language as an issue in Scotland has translated into a lack of concern for Scottish culture among nationalists too. Commenting on the situations in Québec, Scotland and Wales, Paul Hamilton asserts:

Much has been made of the distinction between cultural versus economic/political nationalism in analyses of nationalist parties in Western democracies. Undoubtedly, the Québec and Welsh parties have long had a concern with the fate of vulnerable languages and culture. This stands in contrast to the Scottish case, which, aside from the occasional reference in policy documents or party manifestoes, seems remarkably unconcerned with Scottish culture. One obvious explanation is the public presence of a minority language.[8]

Indeed, in Québec, French serves as the foremost daily signifier of their distinct cultural and historical separation from the rest of Canada, and whenever in power the PQ has endeavoured to boost the use of the French language in the province through language policies. Language, however, provides more than simply a marker of identity for Québec. As Keating posits, language is a “mechanism for maintaining social cohesion, not against the international market but within it”.[9] Indeed, despite initial concerns, language policies have not had the effect of hindering attempts to integrate Québec into the global market system where the English language is so prominent.

A major similarity and marker of convergence between the SNP and PQ, however, is the societal counterparadigm. As Professor Daniel Salee states about Québec:

Much of Québec’s evolution over the past three or four decades can be understood in terms of the development of a counterparadigm that was premised on contesting Canada’s political and cultural hegemony and on continued commitment by the provincial state to social solidarity and social justice.[10]

The same could be said of Scotland. Indeed, both Québec and Scotland have traditionally been, and remain to this day, to the left of the rest of Canada and Britain correspondingly. Centre-right parties of both host states have historically performed poorly at elections in Scotland and Québec, while the nationalist parties reflect leftist tendencies in opposition to a conservative status quo. Amidst all the rallying cries for an independent, sovereign Québec, PQ’s website also refers to its “progressive policies”.[11] Similarly, on the SNP website it describes itself as a “social democratic political party committed to Scottish independence”.[12] Nevertheless, commenting on the position of the SNP, Murray Leith and Daniel Soule assert that “concepts of right wing and left wing have less efficacy than the idea of national independence.”[13] This is certainly true of the SNP – Leith and Soule make use of political compass charts, positing that between the 1979 and 1992 UK elections, the SNP was to the right of Scottish Labour, before switching places in 1997, and then back again in 2010.[14] It is possibly even truer of the PQ, which despite projecting a type of left-nationalism, has shifted to the right on the political spectrum a number of times since the laissez-faire nineteen-eighties in order to fill the populist political vacuum, and to counter attacks from the radical left such as Québec Solidaire (QS).

Although the notion of the counterparadigm with its emphasis on social justice and cohesion appears to be in opposition to neoliberal economic trends, this has not prevented either the SNP or PQ from embracing the market. This is in part due to the malleable nature of the two nationalist parties. If counterparadigms continue to shape much of the rhetoric of the two independence movements, the acceptance of market globalism now has a greater impact on the policies of the SNP and PQ than ever before. As Salee argues, continued emphasis on counterparadigms is used as an ideological tool to assist in winning the sovereignty argument. The SNP and PQ both argue that their nations would be better off divorced from their host state in order to pursue the “social solidarity” that they claim their societies represent, such as greater redistribution of wealth and increased civic participation.[15] Nevertheless, in the neoliberal era, and with the influence of the international institutions, the rhetoric and the reality of the sovereigntists’ counterparadigms are somewhat confused. Although many activists in the two movements remain deeply sceptical of economic globalisation and continue to espouse left-counterparadigm views of independence, both the SNP and PQ have adapted to fit into the new global political and economic environment in attempts to legitimise and bolster the separatist cause. In accordance with localism, a prevalent trend in both the SNP and PQ over the past three decades, there has been an acceptance of integrationist models – namely, relating to the EU and NAFTA. This continental approach has impacted upon the two independence movements in similar ways, dramatically changing the meaning of independence for both Scotland and Québec. However, continentalism has very different roots in the two movements. Hamilton states that the post-war Europeanisation that Scottish nationalists have embraced “acknowledges the exogenous origins” [of nationhood] and the commonality of European nations, in accordance with the principles of EU subsidiarity.[16] In Québec, the acceptance of North American integration is solely for economic purposes, with no project of political union. Economic ties, however, have also served to strengthen a larger North American identity that has weakened Canadian identity among Québeckers, allowing for a greater association with Québec to also flourish in conjunction. Academic Melanie Tafekman made this link in 2002, noting that 85% of Québec’s exports at the time were sold to the U.S., and recognising the new trend of Québeckers increasingly seeing themselves as North Americans and even global citizens as opposed to Canadians.[17] In this ever outward looking global system, it seems as if people both revert back to regional and local identities as well as identifying beyond the parameters of the state on a continental or global level. This parallel dynamic has certainly helped to shape the new nationalisms of Scotland and Québec.

Integrationist tactics serve to legitimise calls for independence. As highlighted by Roger Boire and Jean-Pierre Roy’s critically acclaimed documentary National Matters (2010), for many Scots and Québeckers the idea of ‘going it alone’ have historically conjured up ideas of financial collapse, unsustainable economies, and general chaos.[18] Politicians of both the SNP and PQ argue that an independent state’s involvement with international organisations, such as the EU and NAFTA respectively, would protect the nation’s interests and provide security. As Michael Keating asserts, these international bodies “offer considerable reassurance to voters worried about the disruption and political implications of separation.”[19]  In addition, after 9/11, international defence and security bodies such as NATO have also been taken on board by previously hostile nationalists – in October 2012, the SNP leadership reversed its traditional anti-NATO policy.[20] Under the umbrella of such international organisations, many Scots see independence within the EU and global system as viable, with nationalists able to cite examples of successful small countries involved in the European project. Nationalists in Catalonia also use similar examples to bolster their arguments.[21] For Québec, NAFTA represents a similar type of support as an organisation. As Michael Keating states:

For some [the continental regimes] provides an external support system for independence, and lowers economic barriers to it. So the PQ and the SNP… are committed to independence-in-NAFTA or independence-in-Europe.[22]

With globalisation and continentalism in the form of the EU and NAFTA, as the new nationalist adage goes – “integration promotes disintegration”.[23] In committing to giving up a little sovereignty to continental institutions and the market forces that these institutions support, the nationalists are able to erode the influence the host state has over both national political identity and economics. These policy shifts have not gone without criticism from within the nationalist camps however, thus highlighting the split between the adherents of the pragmatic strategy that follows the global political and economic trajectories, and the radicals who have upheld the traditional values of independent nationhood and self-determination. In Scotland, an array of leftist parties are in favour of independence but regularly criticise SNP policies such as corporation tax cuts, while QS outflanks PQ on the left in Québec and is now a major electoral force.

Leading nationalists in both Scotland and Québec see the integrationist approach as what Michael Keating calls a “nation-building strategy”.[24] As a nation-building strategy, continental integration also forms a part of a wider new nationalist development in recent decades – the opening up of societies that are more ethnically homogenous than their host states. This also involves a broader shift towards pluralism. The capacity to work within the global framework has given further credence to the calls from both the SNP and PQ for  a ‘velvet divorce’ from their respective host states – akin to the amicable division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Indeed, Scottish nationalists often talk of the social union that would remain between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK, while PQ politicians talk of improved relations between an independent Québec and the rest of Canada – as neighbours, co-operating and working together.[25]

In recent years the independence movements of Scotland and Québec have found themselves in very different positions. In Québec the last PQ administration was primarily concerned with the notion of good governance. In Scotland the SNP is campaigning for independence, with the referendum fast approaching. Alex Salmond and the SNP have sought throughout to reassure the Scottish electorate that seeking separation will not interfere with good governance. Both positions are problematic – as highlighted in the documentary National Matters, sovereigntist parties can fall foul of what is known as the good governance trap, something that has traditionally afflicted the ambitious PQ when in office.[26] The danger is that for the moderate majority, at ease with greater autonomy as opposed to full independence, most of the sought after goals can be achieved with the nationalists forming administrations within the existing political framework. Between 1976 and 1980, PQ reform of the electoral system and the charter of French language (Bill/Loi 101) satisfied many Québeckers that the necessary alterations could be made within Canada’s federal system. This allowed for the ‘Oui’ campaign to lose the independence referendum of 1980, with 60% voting against, while the following year PQ was re-elected in the province.[27] The good governance trap at the federal level could continue to damage the PQ’s push for independence if it returns to power. In Scotland, with ever increasing powers over their own affairs, and potentially more on the way with greater devolution if the electorate votes against independence, perceived good governance within the devolved system could also hinder any future attempts at independence there, too – hence the SNP’s eagerness to win first time round and avoid the problems faced by the PQ in Québec.

The Scottish and Québec independence movements are similar in a great number of ways, yet they differ significantly too. The roots of Scottish and Québecois nationalism are poles apart, from their histories of absorption into the host state, to their relationship with language and culture, and the political systems that they operate within and contend with. Nevertheless, the two movements both espouse a progressive national narrative counter to that of their host states and have both converged over their responses to the new global economic and political orders, adopting integrationist policies within their platforms. This reflects the idea that the new nationalisms of both Scotland and Québec are formed from the pragmatism of the globalisation era added to the historical idealism of independence. As Keating suggests, “they are the result of nation-building strategies conducted within the shell of the existing state” while also “draw[ing] on historic traditions and identities”.[28] If the historic traditions and identities of the two nations are very different indeed, the nation-building strategies are similar, reflecting both shared global realities and older separatist ambitions.

Currently, there is of course far greater momentum for independence in Scotland, and the referendum is just a week away [at time of writing]. In Québec, after two referendum losses in 1980 and 1995, and in the midst of increasing activism among its youth following two years of student protests, there is now a greater focus on social justice as opposed to independence, which has been pushed down the agenda in the province. Despite these very different situations and the historical differences around language and culture, the independence movements and the leading sovereigntist parties in Scotland and Québec have converged over many issues, and now use many similar tactics that fall under the umbrella of new nationalism. Whatever happens in Scotland on the 18th of September, sovereigntist convergence will continue to impact both its political climate and that of Québec.

– Daniel W. Round, 10th September 2014.


[1] Michael Keating, Nations against the State: The New Politics of Nationalism in Quebec, Catalonia and Scotland (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996), 220.

[2] Francois-Pierre Gingras and Neil Nevitte, “The Evolution of Quebec Nationalism” in Alain G. Gagnon, Quebec: State and Society (Toronto: Methuen, 1984), 5.

[3] Murray Stewart Leith and Daniel P.J. Soule, Political Discourse and National Identity in Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 24.

[4] Keating, 69.

[5] Statistics Canada,

[6] Atsuko Ichijo, Scottish Nationalism and the Idea of Europe: Concepts of Europe and the Nation (New York: Routledge, 2004), 38.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Paul Hamilton, “Converging Nationalisms: Quebec, Scotland, and Wales in comparative perspective”, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 10:4 (2004), pp. 664.

[9] Keating, 219

[10] Daniel Salee, “Transformative Politics, the State, and the Politics of Social Change in Quebec”, in Clement, Wallace and Leah F. Vosko (Editors), Changing Canada: Political Economy as Transformation (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2003), pp. 25.

[11] PQ,

[12] SNP,

[13] Leith and Soule, 49.

[14] Ibid., 47.

[15] Salee, 27.

[16] Hamilton, 663.

[17] Melanie Takefman, “Globalisation experts congregate at Concordia”, Concordia’s Thursday Report (7th November, 2002)

[18] Roger Boire and Jean-Pierre Roy (Directors), Questions Nationales/National Matters, documentary film (Montréal: L’Oeil Fou inc., 2010).

[19] Keating, 63.

[20] Ian Davis, “Joining Nato: the SNP can safely hold fire on its anti-nuclear dream”, The Guardian, 16th October 2012.

[21] Boire and Roy, National Matters.

[22] Keating, 223.

[23] Stéphane Paquin, “Globalization, European integration and the rise of neo‐nationalism in Scotland”, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Volume 8, Issue 1, (2002), pp. 55

[24] Keating, 217.

[25] Boire and Roy, National Matters.

[26] Boire and Roy, National Matters.

[27] Keating, 69.

[28] Ibid., 217.


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