Scottish independence: Lessons to be learnt from 1995 Quebec campaign


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The Independent Online

The pro-independence camp, advancing on a wave of patriotic optimism, breaks though in the polls. Opponents of separation begin to fear they are losing and take dramatic last-minute steps to keep the nation together. It works… just.

Both sides in the increasingly tense Scottish referendum battle are learning lessons and drawing encouragement from the dramatic twists of the 1995 campaign over whether Quebec should break away from Canada.

With two weeks to go before that referendum, the healthy lead for No had collapsed and polls began to suggest that the mainly French-speaking province would go it alone.

As in Britain, the No camp in Quebec had fought a largely negative battle, focusing heavily on financial arguments, and ensuring that a Prime Minister who was unpopular in the area, in this case Jean Chrétien, kept a low profile.


It was facing a campaign headed by Lucien Bouchard which appeared to be gaining unstoppable momentum. As polls suggested Quebec was heading for independence, the No campaign took last-ditch action. Canadians travelled to Montreal, where they appealed for Quebec to remain in their family, while Mr Chrétien promised constitutional reforms to recognise the province’s unique status.

Although the final survey still found a seven-point lead for independence, Quebeckers voted by a tiny margin – 50.6 per cent to 49.2 per cent – to remain Canadians.

Scottish Nationalist strategists have taken discreet advice from veterans of the 1995 Quebec campaign. They say they have taken two distinct messages from its events – that they need plenty of time to get impetus, and they have to be able to offer a positive upbeat vision to counter the doom-mongers.

A final message is that they probably need to build a distinct lead on 18 September as insurance against last-minute switchers to the status quo.

For Better Together, there is the uncomfortable parallel of its poll support crumbling as referendum day approaches. It is now attempting to emulate the Yes campaign’s appeal to emotion by urging supporters of the union to come out loud and proud for the UK’s survival. It is now being backed by a Chrétien-style promise that Scotland will get extra powers if it rejects independence.

For all the criticism of its tactics, Better Together also hopes it has sown enough doubts to win back enough waverers on polling day, just as appeared to happen 19 years ago on the other side of the Atlantic.