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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.

By Harry McGrath

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.

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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.

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