It may be that this time they really will vote for independence. The polls suggest so, but the polls suggested so before the previous referendum in 1980 and turned out to be wrong. This uncertainty has several causes. One is the rambling, ambiguous language of the proposition. Another is the crafty voting habits of the people of Quebec.
They have formed the habit of voting for the independence party - the Parti Quebecois and its allies - but voting narrowly against independence itself. This seems illogical. But it is not. A nationalist "PQ" government is good for Quebec, frightening the Canadian federal government into all kinds of concessions. An independent (or "sovereign") Quebec, on the other hand, is a jump into unmapped territory.
There is a parallel in Britain. A vote for the Scottish National Party is often seen as "a vote for Scotland", because returning a large bunch of SNP members to Westminster is the best way so far discovered to force London to pay attention to Scotland's needs. But many of those SNP voters are not especially impatient for independence. Regaining a Scottish parliament, within the UK, would satisfy them for the moment.
If I am not mistaken, we are going to hear a lot about Quebec's relevance to Scotland in the next 18 months. John Major is apparently still convinced that "the defence of the Union" was a vote-winning slogan in 1992, and he intends to sell it hard in England as well as Scotland before the next election. If Quebec says No to independence, the Tories will tell us how wise the Quebeckers were to recognise that Ottawa (like London) knows best. If they say Yes, everything that happens will be amplified over here as evidence of the mad wickedness of devolution and independence.
It all reminds me of Lord Home, who died earlier this month. On several occasions in his life, he was involved with the aspirations of small nations. In 1938 he assisted Chamberlain in the negotiations which culminated in the Munich treaty and abandoned Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Some 40 years later, on the eve of the 1979 referendum on the Labour government's proposals for Scottish devolution, he intervened to call for a No vote - on the grounds that a Tory government would produce a better plan for a Scottish assembly.
Since Mrs Thatcher had already converted her party to opposing all legislative devolution, this was ridiculous. But some deferential people changed their vote to No. The result was close, and it is possible that Lord Home's speech kept the Yes majority below the 40 per cent of the electorate required to make it valid. There was much bitterness against him. Professor Christopher Harvie commented brutally: "This man began his career by betraying one small nation, and finished it by betraying another."
That was unfair. But it is a reminder that "Sir Alec" - while a gentle and humble man - was not devoid of guile. And his view of the fates and rights of nations was imperial, dating back to 1914: that the future lay with Empires and Great Powers and federations, rather than with petty ethnic nationalism.
My only encounter with him confirmed this. In 1959, as Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, he was constructing the misbegotten "Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland", whose independence would have handed over millions of black Africans in Nyasaland (now Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) to domination by the white settler minority in Southern Rhodesia. I was Commonwealth Correspondent of the Scotsman when, in March 1959, protest demonstrations broke out in Nyasaland. The British responded by declaring a state of emergency, suppressing news from the territory and spouting absurd fibs about a "murder plot" against local whites.
But the Government had reckoned without the Kirk. Since the time of Livingstone, the Church of Scotland had regarded Nyasaland as its sweetest missionary province. Now the Kirk was outraged. A telephone call from the Scotsman took three days to reach the Reverend Andrew Doig in Blantyre, Nyasaland, but found him happy to spill the beans. Morning after morning, the paper ran this world exclusive in instalments, showing up the depth of hostility to federation and the mendacity of the British Government.
Eric Mackay, then London editor, and myself were sent for by Sir Alec, who beseeched us to bring the Doig revelations to an end. It was so irresponsible ... the grand design of federation itself was at stake. Sir Alec roamed up and down the room, wringing his hands. "I appeal to you, as fellow Scotsmen..." Eric sat on the edge of the sofa, his face a mask of Aberdonian obstinacy. An uncompanionable Scottish silence fell. We left, and carried on publishing our correspondence from Blantyre. The Federation died a few years later, and I like to think that we helped to deal it the first wound.
Sir Alec believed in big states, big units of power. The tradition in which he grew up thought that empires and federations might be desirable, as long as Britain either played the leading role in them or stayed outside. At all events, they were preferable to a patchwork quilt of petty sovereignties. The same tradition taught him that "patriotism" was good while "nationalism" was bad. Patriotism meant love of country, but also loyalty to what was already established, preferably to a king or an emperor. Nationalism, by contrast, meant the breaking-up of traditional bonds to create something new-fangled and artificial. Its effect was to separate rather than to unite.
If you were brought up with thoughts like those, you would not think much of Czechoslovakia and the other little "succession states" of Europe created after 1918. But you would rather admire the multi-national Habsburg empire out of which many of them emerged. Sir Alec would, I think, be a mild Eurosceptic today, approving of close associations of states but wary of any loss of British sovereignty. He admired the flexibility of Canada's federal constitution, but he would have condemned the Front Quebecois as "separatists".
Much of this tradition is wrong. The age of big states is over, and the time of small nations and self-managing regions is upon us. The distinction between patriotism and nationalism is spurious, while modern nationalism - as in Quebec - does not seek to be "separate" but to join the global economy more effectively. All the same, the mental world of Lord Home is a place of light and sanity compared with the cave which the present Tory right inhabits.
Today, a Conservative editor like Charles Moore can say that the "essence of liberty" is the sovereign British Parliament, "a beautiful old house" which needs no replacement. Other cave-dwellers want Britain to leave the European Union in case it imperils that house. Still others would rather see Scotland independent than enjoying a parliament of its own within the United Kingdom - in other words, they would prefer to break up Britain rather than risk modernisation of those "beautiful old houses" at Westminster.
The Quebecois and the Scots, like so many others, want to join the world and do not ask it to stop for them. But the Tory Europhobes and ultras, having failed to make the world stop, have jumped off it anyway. Complacent, atavistic and deeply provincial, they are the true "separatists".