Scotland’s constitutional future: the lessons from Quebec

Published: 3 December 2014

*Join the Centre on Constitutional Change & Territorial Politics Research Group for Frédéric Bastien's seminar on Thursday 11 December 2014. Trudeau, Thatcher and the Fight for Canada’s Constitution – and lessons for Scotland*

As the United Kingdom contemplates constitutional changes following the referendum in Scotland, it is worth re-examining the 1980 referendum in Quebec and its aftermath in order to look for the famous “lessons of history”. My new book, The Battle of London: Trudeau, Thatcher and the Fight for Canada’s Constitution, offers a fresh perspective in this regard.

Just like what happened in Scotland, the no campaign in Quebec used negative arguments against separation, predicting some dire economic consequences if the province were to become a country. In both occasions, promises of constitutional renewal were also made. It was vague but effective. Many people voted “no” with the conviction that change was on the way and it would result in more autonomy. The “no” received 60% of the vote in Quebec and 55% in Scotland.

Constitutional reform started in Canada the day after the referendum. This had implications for Britain.  At that time the Canadian constitution was still a British statute and, in many important ways, could only be modified by Westminster. Margaret Thatcher was eager to get rid of this colonial legacy and to avoid any Canadian entanglements. She would soon find out how tricky constitutional reforms can be.

The agenda was controlled by Ottawa and a promised of change made solely to Quebec became a pledge to make several ambitious constitutional modifications for the entire country. Finding an acceptable constitutional status for Quebec that would get support from both French and English Canadians was not going to be easy.  But Prime minister Pierre Trudeau refused to focus on that. He wanted to entrench a controversial bill of rights, get new economic powers for the federal government and a new amending formula.

The promise of addressing Quebec’s concerns disappeared totally in this broader scheme. As a result, both federalists and nationalists rallied against Ottawa, among other reasons because Trudeau’s project was a threat for Quebec’s legislation on language.  In a surprising turn of events, seven of the nine other provinces also decided to oppose the federal government, for their own specific reasons. The reform process became even more difficult, passionate and controversial then it already was.

That is certainly a first lesson for the United Kingdom. As much as possible, the focus should be Scotland. For instance, proposals of taking advantage of the current circumstances to give Britain a written constitution, advocated by The Economist, will be very complicated and might kill any reform altogether.

That being said, let’s go back the events of 1980-82 in Canada. The dissenting provinces, collectively known as the gang of eight, decided to mount a public relation campaign in the UK aimed at convincing MPs and Lords to vote against Trudeau’s proposals. This was not an easy task but provincial agent generals in London were eventually able to plant seeds doubt in the mind of several parliamentarians.

For some lawmakers, especially on the Labour side, the idea of devolution for Scotland was becoming an attractive one.  Michael Foot, leader of the opposition, was reasoning along that line. For him, decentralisation was the way of the future and a constitutional reform supported only by the provinces of Ontario and New Brunswick was incompatible with Canadian federalism.

Others, especially in the Tory camp, thought that enacting a charter of rights was something to be done by Canadians once patriation was completed. Britain was not to be used by Trudeau to do something he could not do in Canada in the face of strong provincial opposition.

Margaret Thatcher eventually warned Pierre Trudeau that it would be much better if he could get more provincial support, otherwise his constitutional bill would be rejected by Westminster. He listened to this advice and made some concessions. Nine provinces rallied behind a new proposal, Westminster enacted it but Quebec has refused ever since to endorse the 1982 constitutional act.

This makes no difference legally. The new constitution applies to Quebec anyway. Politically, however, this refusal has had some dramatic consequences. It led to two failed attempts to include Quebec in the constitutional family, the Meech Lake Accord of 1990 and the Charlottetown agreement in 1992.  There was also a second referendum on independence in 1995 that ended with the narrowest possible victory for the federalists, with 50.6% of the vote.  New promises of change were made but again Ottawa failed to deliver.

The consequence of this situation is constitutional paralysis. Opening constitutional talks on any topic, from senate reform to changing the line of succession to the throne, like in the UK, seems impossible. It would mean that Quebec will ask for constitutional reparation first before agreeing to anything else. The trauma is such that few politicians are willing to take this risk.

There lies the other lesson for the UK. If the issue of Scotland is not addressed in way that will satisfy a majority of Scots, the issue is likely to bounce back and, next time around, the consequences might be very dramatic.

Professor Luis Moreno

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