Scotland’s Question of Clarity

There is much that is familiar in watching how Scotland’s vote will unfold today.

Fuelling the sense of déjà vu for Canadians is the arc of the story. It begins with the No forces way ahead in the polls, until suddenly both camps are neck and neck. Panic takes over in the “nation’s” capital, followed by improvisation, vague promises of more devolved powers, and not-so-subtle threats about what it will all mean for the shared currency and the breakaway state’s place in the larger common market (their EU to our NAFTA).

And yet, in spite of all the similarities, something about this vote is different from our own past experience: Its finality. The question posed to voters today is clear: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” Most people (sovereignist leaders included) would struggle mightily to recall with any accuracy the exact formulation of the 1995 Referendum question — something about offering a new economic and political partnership to the rest of Canada.

A Supreme Court Reference and Clarity Act later, the Scottish way is touted in Canada today as responsible break-up politics.

But is it really?

A yes vote in ’95 would have been dramatic, unquestionably. But it would not have carried the same irrevocability that Scotland’s vote today carries. Instead it would have held out the promise — fragile perhaps — of further indecision for a few days, weeks, or months, before settling the matter once and for all. Read Chantal Hébert and Jean Lapierre’s recent study into what key players from the ’95 referendum had in mind if the vote had gone the other way. Nobody, save Parizeau and possibly Chrétien, seemed to have a plan.

Might the ensuing pause given us time to consider the enormity of what was happening? We now know that there was dissension in the sovereignist ranks, but Quebec’s most popular figure at the time, Lucien Bouchard, indicated to Hébert and Lapierre that he would have pushed for a second referendum to ratify the results of negotiations following a Yes vote.

Scottish voters face a much starker choice. And though there is something to be said for clarity, the trouble with Scotland’s independence question is that it betrays unconcern for the inwardly, complex, and conflicting reasons why people vote the way they do.

If you don’t believe me, consider this: If you’re 16, and a resident who is a citizen of a qualifying state in the Commonwealth, you can vote. So a Quebecer with no ties to Scotland, other than the fact that he or she is temporarily living there, can vote yes to end Britain as we know it. I know of at least one lucky nostalgic who plans on joining in on the fun.

I’m not suggesting that non-Scottish voters will ultimately tip the balance one way or the other. And to be fair, there is an entire diaspora of Scots living abroad who will not have a chance to affirm with their ballot their Britishness or their tartan identity.

But as Tyler Cowen aptly remarks, “creative ambiguity“ is the stuff on which many political unions rest, Canada’s and Britain’s included.

Erasing that creative ambiguity with a clear-cut question can produce a pretty messy state of affairs. More than a few observers are already wondering whether England, post-secession and more naturally leaning Tory, will withdraw from another political union — the one it has with the EU — while Scotland scrambles to remain a member and adopt the Euro.

Ever since the Secession Reference in 1998, Canadians have been in the habit of comforting themselves in believing that “a clear majority vote in Quebec on a clear question in favour of secession” is a near impossibility. The close polling in Scotland is proof that this is nonsense. It’s also a reminder that clarity is far more than a reasonable legal prescription; it is what you’re left with when the dreaming eye opens.


  1. there’s definitely something to be said for creative ambiguity, but at some point the ambiguous system also loses legitimacy.

    On the pro-ambiguity side: I remember a smart lawyer advising me that if I were chairing a meeting at which opinion was closely divided, I should try to avoid calling a vote. The divisiveness of the result would be worse than having a decision, especially if some of the losing side did not accept it. (At some stage it depends on what the issue is, how important for the organizaion, the nature of the organization, and so on.)

    On the anti-ambiguity side: it has always seemed to me that one of the main reasons that the Reform Party grew in support in the 1980s is that its early members, or those from whom members were drawn, kept wanting to ask questions about Quebec’s status in confederation – why do we do this or that for Quebec? How is that fair to the west? – and the response from the (perceived to be eastern) elites was ‘you can’t ask that question’ or ‘you are a bigot for asking that question’ instead of giving a direct answer.

    The reaons for the elites’ not wanting to answer the question directly was that they had gone through two decades or more of hard battle in the 50s and 60s and 70s trying to help right the inequalities that French Canadians, notably Quebeckers, had dealt with for decades, and righting them required some ambiguous compromises that were understood by those close to the battle but not necessarily by those farther away, and with less sympathy to the ‘other’ side.

    The result, however, of not giving an answer to the proto-Reformists was to drive them to form a party that insisted on asking the question, and in answering it. In my view, the answers were intolerant and not sufficiently appreciative of the delicate balance needed, and little informed of aspects of Canadian society far from the West. And then it was joined by various social conservatives of a sort who never saw a human failing that could not be remedied by punishment.

    It occurred to me to wonder if some of the strength could have been removed from the Reform movement if someone had actually taken the questions seriously and given a humane rather than intolerant answer to them. Mabye that’s asking for a different balance of ambiguity…