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Chrétien plunges into Scottish independence debate

Former prime minister Jean Chretien warned a British audience to take the threat of Scottish separatism seriously in a speech May 15.

Andrew Wiard/

When the British government was looking for some advice on how to defeat Scottish separatists in a referendum next year, it turned to Canada and sought out none other than Jean Chrétien.

The former prime minister has held discussions with Michael Moore, Britain's Secretary of State for Scotland and a leading figure in the No campaign in Scotland. And on Wednesday, Mr. Moore invited Mr. Chrétien to London to offer some insights to a small group of British members of Parliament and business people.

Mr. Chrétien, 79, didn't disappoint. He offered a history lesson, told jokes and provided anecdotes about his struggles convincing some British politicians to repatriate the Canadian constitution in the early 1980s.

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While staying away from the specifics of the Scottish vote, which will be held on Sept. 18, 2014, Mr. Chrétien shared some thoughts on the difficulties the No side faced in Canada during the 1980 and 1995 referendums on sovereignty. He talked about how the campaigns divided cities, villages and families. And he said the No side was at a disadvantage because it lacked the emotional appeal of sovereignty.

"When you are on the No side, you are breaking the dream of people," he told the audience. "Breaking the dream of a kid, it's tough. … I did not find it very easy."

He urged those on the No side in Scotland not to take any lead for granted, observing that, in 1995, the federalists in Quebec nearly lost the referendum after leading in the polls for weeks. "Eight days before the referendum, we were 10 points behind," he said. "We were taken by surprise and we had to get moving."

After his speech, Mr. Chrétien told reporters his main message to the MPs was: "Take it seriously. You never know."

Mr. Chrétien indicated that the No forces should benefit from a clear question, something he argued Quebeckers didn't have. The Scottish question is: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

"That's a good question," Mr. Chrétien said. However, he said the campaign in Scotland is far too long, with roughly 18 months to go before the vote. The campaign periods in Canada were about five weeks.

Mr. Moore said he has long been an admirer of Mr. Chrétien and sought him out because of his experience with referendums. "Of course, now with the decision we are taking in Scotland next year, we're just interested in what happened in detail in Quebec and Canada both 20 years ago and a generation ago," he told reporters.

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The British government has been ratcheting up the pressure on the Yes side lately, outlining the impact separation could have on pensions, health care and fiscal policy. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which has a majority in the Scottish parliament, has derided the British government, saying it is fear mongering and that independence will bring financial benefits to Scotland. The Scottish government plans to keep using the British pound, keep the Queen and join the European Union if it wins the referendum.

Mr. Chrétien isn't the first Canadian to step into the Scottish referendum. Earlier this year, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois met with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who leads the SNP. However, Mr. Salmond seemed to play down the meeting with Ms. Marois, keeping it relatively short with no public events together. He also turned down an offer to accept Quebec documents related to the 1995 vote.

Mr. Chrétien did express some concern about the simple majority required in the Scottish vote. He said that after the 1995 referendum, the Canadian Parliament passed the Clarity Act, which requires that any future vote have a clear question and a substantial majority.

Mr. Chrétien didn't define how large a majority these types of votes should have, but he indicated that 50 per cent plus one was not sufficient.

Ms. Marois has rejected the Clarity Act, but Mr. Chrétien said the world community wouldn't recognize a vote on Quebec separation that didn't comply with the legislation. "Taiwan claims independence from China," he said as an example. "They don't have a seat at the United Nations."

And he warned that the separatist sentiment never dies. "The dream of independence will always be there for a minority of the population," he said.

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More


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