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.

Getty
Show Hide image

How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.