There were a lot of Canadian politicians in the Scottish Parliament in the last week of January and they weren’t there for Robbie Burns Day. Just as one group of Canadian MPs and Senators left the building in walked Quebec Premier Pauline Marois (with entourage).
Scotland is used to human traffic with Canada, though historically it has almost all been in the other direction. Indeed, post-Confederation Scottish migration to Canada created one of the host countries’ primary narratives. For mnemonic purposes, let’s call it the Macdonald/Douglas story: the creation of the country from John A. (from Glasgow) who bound it with his railway to Tommy D. (from Falkirk) who distinguished it from its southern neighbour with his health care system. It is a source of pride in Scotland that these two and so many others from the old country distinguished themselves in the new one.
In recent months, however, the prospect of a Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 seems to have ignited a sudden interest in Scottish affairs from a Canadian perspective rather than the other way around. MP James Rajotte and his group were here as a delegation representing something called the Canada-UK Inter Parliamentary Association. They will say that their job was not to discuss constitutional issues (though it is hard to imagine that they didn’t come up). Ms. Marois, by contrast, made no secret of the fact that she wanted to see what she can derive from Scotland’s experience that could eventually prove useful to her in Quebec.
Neither visit made much of an impression: not surprising in the case of CUIPA, which had all the airs of a standard political junket; but much more so for Ms. Marois, who arrived with a considerable Canadian press presence that clearly expected some kind of nationalist love-in or separatist summit. Instead, the premier got a brief private meeting with Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond squeezed between votes in the chamber. He was gone in an instant (well 45 minutes), leaving Ms. Marois to make the best of it by firing off words like ‘historic’ and ‘co-operation’ in the general direction of an unimpressed Canadian media.
Busy schedules or not, these things rarely happen by accident and it is worth asking why Ms. Marois was given such short shrift. The problem might be that when you look at Scotland’s direction of travel you don’t see Quebec, you see Canada: the Canada, that is, that emerged out of the 1970s and developed until the dawn of Stephen Harper. That was the place that welcomed immigrants, saw multiculturalism as a good thing, emphasized health care, welfare and education and de-emphasized militarism.
Scotland is hitting all of those same buttons and for the same reason. The vision of Canada that formerly prevailed – as a European social democracy – is the one that Scotland is currently pursuing. The resemblance is as remarkable in detail as it is in general principle. Recent major debates here include one on the prospective legalization of gay marriage and another on an independent Scotland ridding itself of nuclear weapons while remaining a member of NATO. Canada has already been to many of the places that Scotland is looking to go.
In fact, apart from some unnecessary advice on the nuts and bolts of referendums (‘don’t ask a convoluted question’ springs to mind, although the Scottish government has already nominated a simple one), the Quebec premier has little or nothing to offer Scotland on its road to 2014. There is no serious argument here about whether Scotland is a nation (only if it is better served in or out of its current union) and no definitive language issue. Canada, by contrast, is an old friend as well as a contemporary model, and the Scottish Government is unlikely to want to jeopardize all that by holding Ms. Marois’ hand aloft.
If Ms. Marois persists with her Scottish embrace – she has offered Quebec’s 1995 referendum files to Scotland (politely declined) and welcomed the expansion of the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds that is being pioneered in Scotland’s referendum – expect some airy stuff from the Scottish government supporting the right to self-determination while pointing out that every situation is different. Meanwhile, bet on Scotland continuing down the Canada road. Next up is a Scottish written constitution. Don’t be surprised if it has something resembling the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms entrenched in it.
Harry McGrath is the former co-ordinator of the Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He now runs the Edinburgh-based Scottish Canadian Agency.