Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?
That is the question Scotland’s separatist First Minister, Alex Salmond, proposes to put to Scottish voters in a referendum sometime in late 2014. Ten words, no subordinate clauses, its meaning incapable of confusion. Compare it with this little essay in obscurity:
Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?.
Or how about that lengthy brain-teaser, posed to Quebecers in 1980, which began with the words “The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada …,” and ended, many, many words later, with “Do you give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?”
Yet, remarkably enough, Salmond’s proposed question has run into fierce opposition, on the grounds that it is loaded in favour of the separatist side. “Do you agree,” it is argued, invites people to say yes: Who wants to be disagreeable? Proposed alternatives include “Do you want Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom?” or “Do you want Scotland to leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country?”
No, that’s not the remarkable part. What’s more remarkable, rather, is that it is not solely up to the Scottish government to decide the question. Under the terms of the 1998 Scotland Act that created the Scottish Parliament — how Tony Blair must regret it now, having given Salmond the platform to pursue his ambitions — constitutional matters are “reserved” to Westminster. And while David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has signalled his willingness to transfer the authority to hold the referendum to the Scots, he has also made clear he will do so on conditions, not only with respect to the question, but the timing and the rules.
The referendum, then, will effectively be a joint venture, on terms negotiated between the two premiers, but with Cameron holding very much the whip hand. Indeed, Cameron has been bold enough to demand that the referendum be held much sooner, within the next 18 months, rather than subject the country to the three years of uncertainty of what he called, in an obvious bit of borrowing, Salmond’s “neverendum.”
Provided his conditions were met, he promised, he would accept the result as binding — which is to imply that if his demands were not met, he would feel free to ignore the result, as he is fully entitled to do. There has been no suggestion that Scotland could ignore the law and simply hold a referendum on its own, still less that it could declare independence unilaterally. Whatever comes to the United Kingdom, it will be by a decision of the British parliament, and carried out under the law.
No, I’m sorry, that’s still not the remarkable part. The truly remarkable thing is that we in Canada should ever have allowed the contrary notion to have taken hold: that the secessionists would dictate the wording, the timing, the rules, the requisite majority and the consequences of any vote. And that, having meekly surrendered every possible advantage to the separatists, we would then participate in these rigged votes, not once but twice. For the longest time, we trembled even to suggest the rule of law should apply — I remember federal ministers insisting, with the special ferocity of the fearful, that separation was a “purely political” question, beyond such “narrow legalisms.”
That changed with the Supreme Court reference on secession and the Clarity Act. But only just. The Clarity Act, remember, does not bind the government of Quebec in any way. It is binding only on the government of Canada. It does not set the rules for any future referendum. It only defines the conditions under which the federal government could enter into negotiations afterward. The Supreme Court required Ottawa to negotiate if there were a “clear majority” in response to a “clear question” (though quite what it was required to negotiate was left unclear). The Clarity Act forbade the feds to negotiate unless there were. But everything else was left to the separatists.
Among the very short list of advanced democracies that permit secession, we are on an even shorter list of those that leave it to the seceding power to arrange its own exit. Britain is more the norm. Still, Cameron is playing this game more aggressively than most. I can’t imagine he would actually sit down to negotiate the breakup of the United Kingdom, three centuries after the Act of Union: no Prime Minister would. His promise to do so must therefore be regarded as a bluff. There’s a certain game-theoretic sense in this. Not only does he avoid accusations of high-handedness, but by making “clear” the consequence of a yes vote, he warns off strategic voters who might be tempted to vote no just to extract better terms of union.
But he would not do so if he were not confident of victory. And with good reason: current polls show support for Scottish separation is higher in England than in Scotland.
Andrew Coyne / Postmedia News