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opinion

The prevailing narrative for why Scotland's independence vote will be closer than almost anyone anticipated is that the No side blew it. Until panic set in, it ran a complacent, negative campaign with a bland leader, leaving the Yes side to invoke the romance of nation-building.

Sound familiar? The same recriminations erupted among the No forces after Quebec's 1995 referendum. Many blamed the No's near-loss on an uninspiring campaign led by Quebec Liberal leader Daniel Johnson and its tired warnings of economic Armageddon after a Yes victory.

Then, as now, an unpopular prime minister (Jean Chrétien was almost as disliked in Quebec as David Cameron is in Scotland) was the icing on the cake for a Yes campaign with momentum. Last-minute promises and expressions of affection were repudiated as insincere acts of desperation.

For the vast majority of Quebeckers, however, the decision to vote Yes or No did not turn on anything as superficial as a campaign slogan. Media accounts of the referendum focused on strategies and tactics, but voters focused on the beef, not the bun.

The same goes for the Scots. As Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh noted last week, "big things do not happen for small reasons." While the "trigger" for wars, revolutions or independence may sometimes be "fiddly and particular," the "ultimate cause is deep and structural."

"If a 300-year-old union is on the edge of oblivion, this cannot be explained by 'messaging' and 'tone,' " Mr. Ganesh wrote. The forces that held the union together for more than three centuries – the privileges of empire and military threats in Europe – are no longer relevant.

"The UK is not an immutable fact of nature; it is a human design that can be undesigned when the circumstances that gave rise to it no longer obtain," Mr. Ganesh concluded.

If this is true, watch out. Whatever the result of Thursday's vote in Scotland, the Yes side's surprising competitiveness will have recomforted separatists from Catalonia to Corsica, from Quebec to Flanders and to northern Italy, that theirs is far from a lost cause. These regions all belong to countries that are human constructs, formed either at the barrel of a gun or because it seemed like the right thing at the time. The case for unity must be constantly remade.

As anywhere between 500,000 (according to the Spanish government) and 1.8 million Catalonians (according to police estimates) marched in Barcelona last week to mark the 300th anniversary of the Bourbon conquest, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy touted the country's national organ donor registry as a tangible example of the benefits of unity.

"An Andalusian can live with the heart of a Catalonian thanks to the national transplant system," said Mr. Rajoy, whose country is facing its own unity crisis with a scheduled Nov. 9 referendum on Catalonian independence. "Solidarity is the clearest manifestation of our Spanish identity."

A Canadian federal leader would be hard-pressed to make the same unity pitch. Jurisdictional prerogatives have, until recently, prevented the mere existence of a national organ registry. The new National Organ Waitlist Registry is a work in progress at the mercy of the provinces. Quebec runs its own donor/transplant programs and participates in national ones on an ad hoc basis.

Last week, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard reminded us that his province still hasn't ratified the 1982 Constitution. "On the eve of Canada's 150th birthday, Quebeckers would like to see the pact that gave birth to it reaffirmed," he said at a ceremony honouring George-Étienne Cartier, a Father of Confederation who would become Sir John A. Macdonald's Quebec lieutenant.

Mr. Couillard's idea struck horror into the hearts of the rest of the Canadian political class and was quickly dismissed, including by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Such is our current leaders' allergy to the constitutional file that they are determined to tiptoe their entire careers around it.

Nothing good would come of it, they insist. Besides, they add, the Parti Québécois is at death's door and young Quebeckers have no time for the nombrilism of their elders.

They may be right. Besides, just because Quebec hasn't signed the Constitution doesn't mean it isn't bound by it.

Therein lies the rub. For many Quebeckers, their province's non-ratification of the country's fundamental law is like already having one foot out the door. The Scots may show them how to move the other one.