An independent Scotland could look like a wee Canada

The closest parallel between Scotland and anywhere else is not Quebec, Ireland, Iceland, or Norway, but Canada.

Comparing a future independent Scotland to other places is all the rage. Visions of Scotland as a new Ireland or new Iceland have come and gone, their reputations as thriving small countries shredded by banking meltdowns and financial collapses. Comparisons with Nordic states are ongoing but sometimes require a shoehorn to make them fit.

The recent ‘Edinburgh Agreement’, which laid the groundwork for a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, has unleashed a fresh set of comparisons - this time between Scotland and other places with independence movements.

Foremost amongst these is Quebec which is deemed to be similar to Scotland because it has already experienced independence referenda. However, the independence movement in Quebec differs from that in Scotland in at least two fundamental ways: creating a new country is not the same as restoring the independence of an old one and Scotland has no equivalent of the language issue that was so definitive in Quebec.

From a Scots-Canadian perspective the closest parallel between Scotland and anywhere else is not Quebec, Ireland, Iceland, or Norway, but Canada. Indeed, it is Groundhog Day for people like me who lived in Canada for many years and live in Scotland now.

Scottish government rhetoric in favour of multiculturalism and immigration distinguishes it from other parts of the British body politic, but is very familiar to Canadian ears. Ditto a recent consultation on gay marriage which unleashed exactly the same apocalyptic arguments against it that were heard in Canada before it was legalised there in 1995. Ditto the headline debate at the last Scottish National Party conference which confirmed party policy on withdrawing nuclear weapons from Scotland but voted in favour of membership of NATO. That debate raged in Canada from the 1960s until the squadron at Comox on Vancouver Island flew the last nuclear weapons back to the United States in 1984, leaving Canada a non-nuclear member of NATO.

This paralleling of the Canadian experience in Scotland has gone largely unnoticed on both sides of the Atlantic. Here comparisons between Scotland and Canada tend to be seen as historical rather than contemporary; in Canada anything with the words ‘independence’ or ‘referendum’ attached to it is viewed through the prism of Quebec.  

However, there is something going on, even if it is subliminal. It’s almost de rigueur for Scottish politicians to use the saying "Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation" and attribute it to Scottish writer Alasdair Gray. In fact, Gray paraphrased it from a line in Canadian Dennis Lee’s iconic poem ‘Civil Elegies’: "And best of all is finding a place to be/in the early days of a better civilization". The real interest for Scotland, however, lies not in the attribution but in the context of Lee’s original poem.

‘Civil Elegies’ was published in the late 1960s and again in the early 70s when Lee was concerned about Canadian identity and the possibility that Canada would simply replace one form of cultural hegemony (British) with another (American). Happily for Lee (and Canada generally) this was one of those rare occasions when cultural and political interests conflated. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was busy reinventing Canada as a European-style social democracy with a unique maple leaf twist. Replace maple leaf with thistle and you have a serviceable description of where Scotland is fifty years later.

So rather than see the independence issue in Scotland as just another version of Quebec, it looks to me a lot more like the ‘small ‘n’’ Canadian nationalism of the 1970s onward: welcoming, inclusive, peaceful. Ironically, Scotland’s pursuit of this vision could see it pass Canada going in the other direction. Unusually, perhaps uniquely, certain sections of the liberal British press which once held Canada in the highest esteem are now openly accusing its right-wing government of deserting the principles that made it great.

For now though, it is all about precedents. From smoking bans to gay marriage to national literature in school curricula to minimum alcohol pricing, where Canada goes Scotland eventually follows where it can. The big vision stuff is another matter.  It’s tough to build Canadian style multiculturalism without the ability to adapt your own immigration policy to that end as Trudeau did; tougher still to rid your territory of nuclear weapons without any power over foreign affairs.

The inclination to compare Scotland with Quebec occludes the fact that Canada had its own gradual process of disengagement from the United Kingdom to undergo before it could re-engage with the world on its own terms. This was only completed in 1982 with the patriation of Canada’s constitution from Westminster and the creation of a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canada’s refusal to join the United States and the UK in an unsanctioned invasion of Iraq in 2003 was one notable assertion of its free will.

Scotland's First Minister and Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond attends a Commonwealth Games event at Glasgow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

Harry McGrath is the online editor of the Scottish Review of Books and a former Coordinator of the Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

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Theresa May dodges difficult questions about social care and NHS in Andrew Neil interview

Prime Minister was on message but on the back foot.

Theresa May was interviewed for 30 minutes by Andrew Neil on BBC One this evening, and she managed to say next to nothing. Whether you see that as skilful politics or shameless dishonesty, there was very little that came out of this interview. Here’s the little we did learn:

The Prime Minister is assuming victory - even if she says otherwise

Although the Conservative party’s campaign has been based on trying to convince voters that there is a chance Jeremy Corbyn could be Prime Minister (to spook them into voting for May, and against a Corbyn-led coalition – a very unlikely scenario in reality), Theresa May revealed just how strongly her party is assuming victory. For example, when pressed on her plans for funding social care (means-testing the winter fuel allowance, and taxing the elderly on their assets), she could only answer that her government would hold a consultation to iron out the details. No matter how hard she tries to push the message that Corbyn is en route to No 10, if her policies are not policies at all but ideas to be fleshed out once she returns to power, this remains just rhetoric. As Neil asked about the consultations: “Wouldn’t you have done that before you came out with the policy?”

The Tories won’t lower themselves to costing their manifesto

It has always been the case that Labour has to work much harder than the Tories to prove its economic credibility, which is why in the Ed Miliband days it was decided that all policy proposals had to add up. But never have the Tories been so shameless in taking advantage of that political fact. For all the stick its received for being idealistic, Corbyn’s manifesto is more costed than the Tory effort, which May herself admitted during this interview is a set of “principles” rather than policies: “What we set out in our manifesto was a series of principles.” Where is the money going to come from for £8bn extra for the NHS? “Changing the way money is used”, “The strong and growing economy”, and “a variety of sources”, of course! At least Labour could patch together something about corporation tax and cracking down on tax avoidance if asked the same question.

Playing politics

Neil went in hard on May’s u-turn on her plan to fund social care – asking repeatedly why the Tories are now planning on bringing in a cap on how much the elderly have to pay, when originally there was no cap. All May could offer on this was that Corbyn was “playing politics” with the policy, and “scaremongering” about it. This deflection was flawed in a number of ways. First, it provided no explanation of what the policy will now be (what will the cap be? When will we know?), second, if Corbyn has been “scaremongering” it means he must have influenced the policy change, which May denies, and third, all it highlights is that May is herself “playing politics”.

Brexit is always the answer

As May cannot answer a single question about the specifics of policies or spending, Brexit is the perfect topic for her. It is a subject defined by its uncertainty and lack of detail, therefore something she can get on board with. She answered almost every question on every subject broached by Neil by asking who voters want around the Brexit negotiating table after the election – her or Corbyn.

Why are the polls closing? “...I’ve set out my vision for that strength in negotiations and that stronger plan. And the choice is who’s going to be doing those negotiations, me or Jeremy Corbyn.”

Are your policies uncosted? “...I think it is important that the country has certainty over the next five years, has the strong and stable leadership I think it needs, as I’ve just explained, particularly for those Brexit negotiations.”

Where is the extra NHS funding going to come from? “...Crucial to that, is getting the Brexit negotiations right, and that’s why this is so important. That’s why who is sitting around that negotiating table, 11 days after the election it’s going to start…”

Will National Insurance go up? “...Fundamental to that of course is getting the Brexit deal right and getting those negotiations right and having both a strong hand in those negotiations but also the strength of leadership in those negotiations…”

Will you break the immigration target promise for a third time? “...The question that people face is who do they trust to take this country though the Brexit negotiations..?”

But the soundbites must be working

A few seconds in to the interview, May had already used the phrase “strong and stable” and “my team”. While political insiders will groan and mock the repetitive use of such banal phrases, and emphasis on Brexit negotiations, we must remember the “long-term economic plan” slogan of 2015’s Tories. It worked, and clearly behind the scenes, the masterminds of the Conservative campaign believe these soundbites must be working. Theresa May is miles ahead of Jeremy Corbyn on the “who you trust to be Prime Minister” metric, which is why the Tories repeating how “strong and stable” their government would be, and running such a presidential campaign (“my team”, and May versus Corbyn) must be working.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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