Leading Article: Vive les Quebecois! Scotland for aye!

TODAY THE people of Quebec go to the polls, and the signs are that they will elect the separatist Parti Quebecois to rule their province again. That does not mean that they are ready to vote to break away from Canada, but independence must be a real prospect - this time. It is only three years since they voted by a margin of just 1.2 per cent to stay in the Canadian federation, but if the PQ can make a success of provincial government why should they not vote differently for a millennial new beginning in, say, 2000?

Today's vote does not simply matter to Canadians. Much the same logic applies all over the world, and especially to Scotland. The Scottish National Party smashed Labour in a by-election for the European parliament last week, and are likely to do well in next year's elections to a Scottish parliament. As in Quebec, a referendum is likely to follow. The separatists lost the first Quebec referendum in 1980 by a 20 per cent margin. But a single vote can never settle the national question, and what they call in Montreal the "neverendum referendum" will one day produce a vote for secession, in Scotland as in Quebec.

Meanwhile, the two great forces holding federations together have weakened. The end of the Cold War makes it less important to be part of a large nation-state, a fact which has dissolved the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia; while the North American Free Trade Agreement and the single European market mean that secessionist states need not fear economic isolation.

Just because the Quebec story has been running so long does not mean it will not happen: both Quebec and Scotland could be independent within 10 years. Neither development would be unwelcome: we should rejoice in the new freedoms ushered in by a peacefully co-operating, free-trading world.

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