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The end of the independence movement?
Categories: Elections

by Tristan Stewart-Robertson

Quebec may no longer be an example the SNP would like.

Long used as one of the “nations” for comparison with Scotland and independence movements, the French Canadian province took a dramatic turn away from separatism, and yet strangely could still be left out in the cold.

The separatist Bloc Québécois were virtually wiped off the map in Canada’s federal election on Monday night. It is hard to over-state how shocking the results are.

Party leader Gilles Duceppe was the first Bloc MP elected in Ottawa, won re-election seven times but lost in his eighth attempt. Bloc MPs went from 47 in number to four. That just meets the four-MP threshold required to make them a formal political party in parliament.

The Bloc have dominated Quebec politics for 20 years and they are no more. Viewed simply on that level, a vote for independence was lost.

The change in the political landscape. Maps produced by CBC.

This was a different blow compared to the defeat of the provincial wing of the party, the Parti Québécois, in 2003.

That could more easily be blamed on a voting public fed up of focusing on the independence debate at the expense of real, day-to-day concerns such as health care and the economy.

The defeat of the Bloc in 2011 was because someone spoke to Quebec more convincingly as an opposition to an essentially neo-conservative – in the American sense – prime minister: the New Democratic Party, or more accurately its leader, Jack Layton.

Within a few short hours, the NDP went from one MP to 58 out of all 75 in the province of Quebec. They now form the official opposition in Canada for the first time in their history, thanks to Quebec.

Both the NDP and Bloc are relatively progressive in their policies, except one is nationalist and one is not; think SNP (Bloc) and Labour (NDP).

But after two successive Conservative minority governments in Canada, Quebec overwhelmingly despises Conservative leader and now re-elected PM Stephen Harper.

And Harper has proven he does not need Quebec to win a majority government, which really puts the province potentially in a cold, isolated position. Similarly, PM David Cameron did not need, really, Scotland to move into Number 10.

Gilles Duceppe, in his concession speech, said the electorate decided to give a “last chance” to a federalist party.

He added: “I am leaving, but others will follow until Quebec becomes a country.”
It just is not that simple.

Opposition to a conservative, central-government leader drove the Quebec vote on Monday. That might sound very similar to the message being pushed by Scottish Labour. The problem, however, with a national party beyond regional borders, is that it can be seen to be outside the nation voters want represented.

In the same way as the SNP views itself as the natural representatives of Scotland, one Canadian analyst pointed out that the Bloc provided a “safety valve” to Quebec. They had members elected in Quebec, led from Quebec, representing them afar.

Quebec has never seemed a sensible comparison for the SNP. But Scottish Labour should not read too much into the victory of the NDP as federalist over nationalist. Despite historic ties, the political nuances of Scotland and Canada are radically different.

Labour may well like to see parallels between the two. Canada, perhaps like the UK, is now overwhelmingly divided between Conservative values and left-wing politics. But Scotland itself, like Quebec, is far more subtle internally in manifesto contrasts and issues.

So is the separatist movement in Quebec dead? Is this an historic shift? No. If the NDP fails to sufficiently defend its desires and obsessions, they will be replaced in four years.

Separatism or independence is frequently just the expression of what all voters want deep down: the most effective representation possible. What party wins the right to provide that service is regularly up for debate in the polling booths.

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