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In 1995, supporters of the 'yes' side in Quebec's sovereignty referendum cheer for then-premier Jacques Parizeau, who would go on to lose the vote; in 2016, UKIP party leader Nigel Farage celebrates in London after Britons voted to leave the European Union.

The Canadian Press and Associated Press

John Rapley is a Canadian academic, journalist and author based in London. His most recent book is Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How It All Went Wrong.

Britain’s laboured efforts to quit the European Union are exposing a design flaw in contemporary nationalist movements, from Donald Trump’s “America First” to Europe’s anti-immigrant parties. They want to return to the ways of the past while retaining the economy of the present. Sooner or later, they’ll have to choose. If they doubt that, they might draw some insights from Quebec’s own history with secessionism.

On the night of Oct. 30, 1995, I sat up late in Jamaica, listening through the crackle and static of a shortwave radio as the results of the Quebec referendum trickled in. I was then writing a foreign affairs column for the Jamaica Gleaner, and went on record saying this would be the last chance Quebec got to secure its independence.

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Demographic trends didn’t favour the sovereignty movement. Over the previous half-century, Quebec had gone from being a relatively poor society to a prosperous, dynamic and confident one. But, as happens when incomes rise, fertility fell. That meant Quebec, like the rest of Canada, turned to immigrants to help maintain its labour supply. And immigrants were always going to be a tough sell on the vision of independence promoted by the nationalists.

Beyond that, Quebec had grown comfortable with its prosperity. The Québécois who felt strongly enough about the possible erosion of their cultural identity to accept the economic risks of secession comprised a diminishing share of the population. Polls consistently showed that most of the province’s residents supported independence only on condition there be no economic trade-offs. Forced as a result to broaden their appeal to soft nationalists, Quebec’s sovereignty leaders said that independence would not threaten their economic well-being.

But this weakened their hand. Continuity required Quebec to preserve its existing economic relationships, in particular with the rest of Canada. In the province’s first independence referendum, in 1980, Quebec premier René Lévesque tried to resolve this tension by requesting a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association with the federal government. That, however, put the ball in the federal government’s court. Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau swatted it away by saying he wouldn’t negotiate anything, and that Quebec couldn’t then declare independence because it hadn’t requested a mandate to do so.

May 20, 1980: A defeated René Lévesque holds his hand to his head after the 'yes' side's defeat in the sovereignty referendum.

The Canadian Press

Second time around, in 1995, premier Jacques Parizeau tried to avoid this muddle by requesting a mandate for straight-out independence. That made the campaign an uphill climb, with polls suggesting the referendum would fail. It took Lucien Bouchard’s late intervention to rescue the campaign. Asked by Mr. Parizeau to lead any subsequent negotiations with Canada, he said he would seek economic continuity – sovereignty, wink wink.

Referendum evening started well for the separatists, as the heartlands delivered a strong mandate for independence. But as the votes from Montreal came in, the balance tipped. By the end of the night, Mr. Parizeau could no longer conceal his frustration that his last best chance to make his political dream come true was slipping away. He moaned aloud that were it not for the ethnic vote, the Yes side would have won. Ever since, support for independence has steadily drained away, as its true believers grow older and a younger generation seek new avenues of political expression.

Oct. 30, 1995: Jacques Parizeau, Quebec's premier and leader of the sovereignty referendum's 'Yes' side, gives the victory sign to supporters even though they lost the vote.

Andy Clark

Although Quebec was one of the rare secessionist movements in the industrial democracies to have attained such significance, the prosperity-identity dilemma that beset its campaigns was hardly unique. It is this very tension that may well undo Brexit.

Like Quebec, Britain prospered mightily after the war. And like happened in Quebec, there resulted a declining birth rate. That required the country to resort to immigration to maintain its labour supply. At the same time, the economy became more oriented around its cities, and particularly London. Meanwhile, as London became ever more globally integrated, it pulled away from its traditional hinterland.

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In England’s towns and villages, and particularly among Conservatives, a movement started building, with the intention of clipping London’s wings and reasserting the country’s traditions. Membership in the European Union particularly rankled with these “Euroskeptics,” since they felt that what defined England was a history of resistance, not complacent submission, to the continent. You don’t have to scratch a Brexiter deeply to hear them start on about the Reformation, Napoleon and Hitler.

But, as in Quebec, those who wanted to secede were never going to be able to build a majority for their cause on their native base alone. Disproportionately older, it was declining. So, to reach for middle ground, the campaign leaders did the same sort of thing Quebec’s sovereigntists had tried. In the 2016 referendum on secession from the EU, they promised a departure that would not only be painless, but would actually deliver immediate dividends. Boris Johnson, the Conservative politician who declared that Britain could have its cake and eat it, too, emblazoned his campaign tour bus with a promise that leaving Europe would pump £50-million ($75-million) a day into the National Health Service.

May 17, 2016: Boris Johnson arrives in Stafford to board the Leave campaign's 'battle bus,' which bears slogans about funding the National Health Service.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

In effect, the Brexit campaign offered the public sovereignty-association: Britain would both retain liberal access to Europe and enjoy the freedom to make its own way in the world. But unlike what the Canadian government did during the Quebec referendum campaigns, the EU, anxious not to arouse British sensitivities, largely sat out the campaign. European politicians mostly bit their tongues when the Brexiters made some of their more outrageous claims, allowing people such as Boris Johnson to get away with the murder of both truth and basic logic. That enabled the Leave campaign to hold together its fragile coalition of soft and hard Brexiters – those who want to retain close ties to Europe, and those who want to leave it altogether, regardless the cost.

Nevertheless, the obvious contradictions in that strategy were eventually going to explode into the open. When Theresa May took over from David Cameron as Prime Minister, immediately following the referendum, she held the coalition together by keeping a tight lid on negotiations and issuing platitudes. When asked about the deal she was cooking up, she replied, “Brexit means Brexit.”

Nov. 21, 2018: British Prime Minister Theresa May is greeted by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a Brussels meeting where they talked about the proposed U.K.-EU divorce deal.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

Sooner or later, though, she was going to have to go beyond bromides to reveal what Brexit actually meant. However, because the Brexiters had effectively promised association with the European Union, she entered talks with the EU with a weak hand. While she said no deal was better than a bad deal, and that she was thus prepared to walk away from the table if the EU didn’t give her what she wanted, carrying out the threat was going to be next to impossible: The potential economic cost was well beyond what the referendum result permitted her. With no choice but to stay at the table, she negotiated with an emboldened EU, producing a deal that almost nobody in Britain likes.

Given the way things are lining up at the moment, it looks almost certain that Parliament will reject it. At that point, the hard Brexiters hope to capture the agenda and press ahead with their plan to crash out of the EU. They accept this might induce a recession, but believe it is a price worth paying.

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Their problem, of course, is that they have no mandate to do it. Given the chance, Parliament would reject a no-deal scenario. The Labour opposition would like to force an election, but will probably fail to bring down the government. For if there is one thing Britain’s fractious Conservatives can agree on, it’s that they don’t want to go to the polls at a moment they look so vulnerable.

Oct. 20, 2018: Demonstrators march at an anti-Brexit rally in London.


How then to resolve the impasse? A second referendum, putting the matter back to the British public, is emerging as the most likely option. Brexiters rail against it on the grounds that it would be undemocratic. The people have already spoken, they insist. But of course, what the British public were asked to vote on more than two years ago is entirely different from what they are being asked to accept today. For starters, we’re still waiting for Mr. Johnson’s £50-million daily injection into the NHS (in fact, one recent study found that the hit to the British economy since the referendum has sucked more than that out of the economy.)

The truth is, were a second referendum held, there’s a good chance the Brexiters would not only lose it, but would never get another turn at the bat. As was the case in Quebec in 1995, the clock is running down. It’s not so much that buyer’s remorse is setting in: The positions individual Britons took in the referendum two years ago remain quite stable, despite all that’s happened in the interim.

Elderly Britons voted strongly to leave Europe. Young Britons voted overwhelmingly to stay. Thus, with the passage of time, as older voters die and more young people reach the age of majority, the balance against Brexit tips inexorably further. As happened to Jacques Parizeau that October night, the dream of the Brexiters is slipping from their grasp. If they can’t pull this rabbit from the hat, no more hats will come their way, and they know it.


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