Quebec Lessons for Scotland in How to Pop the Question

By Randall Palmer

OTTAWA (Reuters) - For Brits grappling with the idea of Scottish independence, it may be worth looking across the Atlantic.

In 1995, residents of Quebec voted on whether the province should separate from Canada. That referendum - narrowly won by the pro-Canada camp with just 50.6 percent of the vote - has an important lesson for Scots keen to end Scotland's 300-year union with England, and for the British establishment, which wants them to stay: the wording of the referendum question and the rules around it can help determine whether the country will stay in one piece.

"It was very, very tense. It was our future. It was our national identity at stake," recalls anglophone Quebec native Pauline Morasse, 58, who said she and her francophone husband Bernard have deep attachments both to Quebec and Canada.

"We're both Quebecois and Canadian, and to have to sever one of those identities would have been like a divorce," she said. When the 'no' side finally won, she said she felt relief, "almost disbelieving that we had come that close...to rupture."

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Rattled by the close result, the Canadian government passed what it called the Clarity Act, which says Canada can only be broken up if a clear majority of voters - an undefined level but well over half - answers a clearly stated question in the affirmative.

"It's a huge decision," said Stephane Dion, a political scientist recruited into cabinet after the referendum to draft the new legislation.

"It's not a decision to choose a government, where you may change your mind five years later," he said. "No, for a referendum about belonging to a country, you're voting in some ways for your children, your grandchildren and the next generations. So it's very important that clarity is protected under these circumstances."

"DUTY TO BE FREE"

In Britain, the rules of the debate are already in dispute. Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond have dueled over both the terms and timing of a referendum.

As in Canada in 1995, the debate is filled with hard-nosed economic and political calculations over how debt would be divided and what currency would be used, and passionate deliberation about splitting families and losing passports.

Salmond says separation would enable Scotland, with its North Sea oil, to become a wealthier and fairer nation. The Quebec separatists used a slogan that said everything would be possible economically upon separation. They came up with a formula that would have left them with just 17 or 18 percent of the federal debt, not the 25 percent that represented Quebec's share of the population; and they said they would continue to use the Canadian dollar - though Canada would have denied them a say in setting monetary policy.

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Copyright: Reuters, 2012.

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