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With PQ win, Quebec joins international ranks of ‘Plan-B’ sovereigntists

Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois addresses party supporters after winning a minority government in the Quebec provincial election in Montreal, Sept. 4, 2012.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS

On Tuesday night, Quebec became a member of an international political movement stretching from Edinburgh to Barcelona to Gatineau: The Plan-B Nationalists.

In Catalonia, Scotland and now Quebec, power is held by separatist parties that have little chance of winning a sovereignty referendum in the foreseeable future, but are instead using their electoral mandates to demand increasing devolution of power from the national government.

There's little coincidence in this: In the nine years since the Parti Québécois were last in power, the separatist movements in Canada, Britain and Spain have become increasingly interlinked and motivated by one another's tactics. Their leaders nowadays meet with one another on a regular basis, study one another's slogans and strategies, and celebrate their mutual victories.

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Officials in the Scottish National Party drop the Quebec referendum phrase "sovereignty-association" into their conversations; members of the Catalan Convergence and Unity coalition hold conferences on the Scottish multi-question referendum strategy, and newly elected PQ Premier Pauline Marois has communicated with both movements about their strategies.

Another, more important factor unites these movements: in all three jurisdictions, no more than a third of voters say they would cast a "Yes" ballot in an independence referendum. In Quebec, according to a CROP poll published last week, 28 per cent of voters support full secession; strikingly similar results have been registered recently in Scotland and Catalonia.

As a result, separatist parties everywhere are putting aside separatism for the larger cause of getting more powers – and more revenues – from the central government.

"They're all pursuing a plan B," said David McCrone, an expert in nationalist movements at the University of Edinburgh. "There are considerable similarities, especially in what these parties actually want and what they think they can achieve in the medium term… I suppose that's the nature of sovereign power these days. Our studies show that voters increasingly don't see it as a choice between 'a' and 'b' but as a kind of continuum."

This "Plan B" has become central to the politics of Scotland, Catalonia and Quebec during the past decade: In what the Scottish call "Devo Max" – in other words, maximum devolution of British government powers to the Scottish level – separatist leaders use the remote chance of a referendum as a bargaining chip to gain powers from the central government.

In Scotland, First Minister Alex Salmond's SNP government is proposing a referendum in 2014 or 2015 that will pose the unpopular notion of secession as a first ballot question, followed by the far more popular idea of "Devo max" – in which taxation, welfare and health powers would be given to Scotland, but London would maintain military and foreign-affairs powers.

Catalonia, during the past two decades under various nationalist and separatist coalition governments, has gained numerous powers from the Madrid government including judicial autonomy, language rights, and, since 2006, recognized status as a "nation" within Spain.

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Likewise, Ms. Marois has pledged that her PQ government would not make a sovereignty referendum its main priority, but rather a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to negotiate a new relationship that would relegate such powers as foreign-aid spending and copyright laws to Quebec.

In this, she is not so much diverging from her party's separatist roots as merging with the norm in international nationalist politics and becoming a paid-up member of the Plan-B club.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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