Whatever happens to Quebec, the Tories will learn the wrong lesson from Quebec, like Scotland, only wants to play its part in the modern world

Related Topics
"QUEBEC on the edge of the abyss". What, again? Tomorrow is the day when the Quebecois vote in the referendum on sovereignty. But the world and Canada - and even the Queen - have been here before.

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".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star