John Fraser is the master-emeritus of Massey College, the author of The Secret of the Crown: Canada's Affair with Royalty, and the president of the recently founded Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada.
As the British "nation" awaits expectantly and nervously the results of the Scottish referendum on "independence" on Sept 18, with the most recent polls suggesting all bets are off, there might be some instructive use examining our experience in Canada which, thanks to Quebec, has had nestled within itself for many years a fierce and unified culture and "nation" known as Quebec. There are lessons here to be pondered by both the English and the Scots which Canadians are beautifully set up to instruct them on – especially if the "No" side wins, but even if "Yes" squeaks past the finish line.
First, consider the parallels:
British "union" came about in the reign of King James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland) following long years of English and Scottish conflict; Canadian territorial union came about in the reign of King George III after long years of English and French conflict in North America. In both cases, memories and perceptions of the consequences of historic defeats – both real and a few imagined or simply manufactured – have defined attitudes by the minority nation about the larger one, and attitudes of condescension and impatience have afflicted the "victorious" majority. In both cases, these have helped to define the emotional downside of union, sometimes explosively.
In the long history of both unions, there have been many examples of triumphs and tragedies, the tragedies being defined through violence, bitterness, contempt, self-interest and callous disregard – the one side toward the other, either way. Britain can trump Canada with the historical consequences of the Stuart Pretender's ill-fated travails and the blood-sodden Culloden battlefield, but we did manage to hang a charismatic Métis leader in the 19th-century, thus sending twin messages of hateful "no-quarter" to both French Canadians and aboriginal communities.
In both unions, there have been massive benefits on many fronts – economic, cultural and democratic. In both unions, the touchy/ungrateful smaller receiving entity almost always seems to regard the benefits as its due, while the hurt/insensitive much larger entity can become very tetchy indeed with all the "ingratitude." On the other hand, in both unions, throughout their histories, people of good heart and broadly positive dispositions have worked – often thanklessly – to make the unions work, although sometimes the efforts have looked to malevolent souls like sellouts on the one side and craven capitulation on the other.
Both Canada and Britain are governed under a parliamentary system which has an evolving constitutional monarchy at its nominal head. In fact, the two people who probably know better than anyone else in both nations about all the historic and current complexities and challenges are the Queen of Canada and the Queen of Great Britain. Conveniently, both astute ladies are housed within the same corporeal frame and guard their insights and advice with a judiciousness borne of experience, historical understanding, insight gleaned from constitutional wrangling of the most venal as well as the most high-minded sort, and all of it overlayed by the fickleness of both public opinion and politicians alike, as well as the often confined parameters of possible compromise.
And just as the Queen of Canada never interfered in Quebec's referendum campaign, neither is the Queen of Great Britain going to be drawn into Scotland's. That's because, constitutionally, she knows whatever happens she'll still be queen.
The differences are also pertinent:
Canada has been a federal state with provincial legislatures since the confederation of the former British colonies in 1867. Britain is a unified state since its inception under James I and VI. Neither system has worked perfectly, but on the whole they have tried to evolve for the betterment of most of the population thanks to the basic impulse of decency and the drive towards progress that underpins the fundamental notions of idealized democracy.
In terms of harbouring nascent nationalistic movements within the nation, however, federalism may have worked better for Canada than unitarianism has for Britain. This, presumably, is the reason Britain has become – or is becoming – a de facto federal state with regional legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. If England and Scotland survive the referendum, here are a few choice realities experienced Canadians (i.e. perpetually frustrated English-Canadians and perpetually irritated French-Canadians) can offer the British people (i.e. the perpetually frustrated English and the perpetually irritated Scottish people):
1. The great divide – the historic grievances – will never be fully resolved. Why should it be? It is in the interest of the smaller entity to keep alive the nascent desire for nationhood for both material (tax concessions and many other special economic advantages) and spiritual reasons (historical identity and the joy of perpetual victimhood). There will be periods of calm and useful, positive progress, followed by periods of volatility. The British should be getting used to it by now and start developing a federal mentality that mixes equal parts of idealism with craven self-interest.
2. Be prepared also for incredibly strategic voting by the minority entity at all elections and on all issues that confront the federation. If ever Scotland looks like it is being taken for granted, separatist/nationalist/whateverist political agendas will arise. In Canada, for example, we have had sitting in the federal parliament in Ottawa MPs who have sworn solemn oaths of allegiance to the Sovereign and "her heirs and successors" and even become Her Majesty's "Loyal Opposition" while being totally and noisily committed to destroying the union and breaking up the country. Despite that, they are still entitled to their very useful and handsome Canadian pensions.
3. When push comes to shove, if the federation at its roots works for the benefit of both sides, common sense (i.e. self-interest and a dollop of altruistic good will) will prevail. On several occasions, Quebec has looked as if it was pushing the Canadian federation to the edge of oblivion and, when all the dust and chicken feathers have settled down, the place was still in tact. That's because a sense of entitlement sits more naturally beside a sense of grievance than most people realize.
Canadians, however irritating it might be for the British to contemplate, may have developed a federal template that is useful in an emerging world of reawakening national aspirations by subsumed and ancient entities. Compromise, eschewing hand-on-heart patriotism, mutual self-interest: all these incredibly boring and even banal traits are what can keep such disparate entities together, even in an age that threatens all such unions.
The British don't have to take my word for it, though. They can take the word of their Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth II. She is in constant touch with our very experienced Queen, who goes by the same name. The two of them have seen it all: high tension on the eve of the pollings; posturing or panic-stricken prime ministers of Great Britain and Canada, all bemoaning the imminent crisis at hand; puffed-up and desperate premiers of Quebec and Scotland getting huffy at any hint of condescension. She's seen them all come and she's seen them all go. Is it just my imagination, or has she been saying to all of them: "try and take the long view", or "what can I do to help?" and – most famously of all, at least in our case and certainly in Scotland's too – "whatever befalls, my respect for all the people is absolute. I am not a fair-weather friend."