Scotland's foreign minister: Independence just a matter of time

Fiona Hyslop is not letting a "No" vote discourage her

When asked whether Scotland might still achieve independence someday its foreign minister sounds optimistic, adamant, and a little like Rene Levesque.

In reacting to an initial Quebec referendum defeat in 1980, the first words uttered by the Parti Quebecois founder, forcing a smile as he addressed a cheering crowd, were, “If I’ve understood you correctly, what you’re telling me is, ‘It’ll be next time.'”

Fast-forward to modern-day Scotland, and the cabinet secretary there for culture and external affairs is equally resolute about the fate of her homeland.

“I know that the solution for Scotland will be independence,” Fiona Hyslop said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “I expect that will come at some point.

“The issue is not, ‘If.’ It’s just a case of, ‘When.'”

Members of her Scottish National Party are suggesting that the, “When,” might not be for another generation, after their 10-percentage-point loss in Thursday’s independence referendum.

In the meantime, the SNP will be pushing for new constitutional powers. That’s exactly what happened in the aftermath of the 1980 Quebec vote, when the federal side promised change and the nationalist side, after having lost by 20 points, promised to insist on it. Fifteen years, three frustrating negotiating experiences, and one Charter of Rights and Freedoms later, Canada experienced a referendum sequel, this time with a nailbiter ending.

The UK government wants to avoid such an extended saga.

It plans to move quickly, with a bill by next January that would with devolve powers to its regions. Hyslop says her side will push for greater economic levers — with one example being the ability to levy corporate taxes.

“We’ll work constructively,” she promised.

“I’m not giving you a menu of what we expect, here and now. What I am telling you is I think there’s an expectation that there will be some improvement on the proposals that were sent out in the spring by the different parties, that didn’t quite catch the imagination…

“We will move forward and we will do so in the spirit of working co-operatively with the UK government to achieve the maximum of what we can for the Scottish people.”

For now, Scotland has far less power than a province under Canada’s federal system.

In theory, it can adjust tax levels by three per cent under the 1998 Scotland Act, which created the parliament at Holyrood. Scottish politicians have never used that power, arguing that the huge administrative and political cost of raising taxes wasn’t worth the three per cent.

Starting in 2016, though, the UK will reduce taxes by 10 per cent for Scots, allowing their government to replace that fiscal space with its own taxes. That latest change came under the Scotland Act of 2012 — which will also transfer stamp duties; proceeds from a landfill tax; power to set drug penalties, drunk-driving laws, and speeding fines; and recognize a “Scottish government,” instead of the old “Scottish Executive.”

It also allows the regional government to run a small deficit, letting it borrow 2.2 billion pounds per year. That amounts to 1.6 per cent of Scotland’s GDP, which is far smaller than the deficits the UK has racked up in recent years.

As for foreign relations, there are three Scottish affairs offices abroad — located inside the UK embassies in Beijing, Brussels and Washington, the latter also having responsibility for relations with Canada.

Several Canadian provinces also have foreign representatives working alongside federal diplomats. Quebec, for its part, has about 25 offices abroad, seven of them being more formal general delegations.

Both sides of Canada’s unity debate weighed in on the Scottish vote.

The Parti Quebecois had members there, observing and savoring the referendum experience they’d been lacking these last couple of decades. Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his own preference for the No side, while adding that the decision belonged to Scots.

The Scottish separatists don’t claim any hard feelings toward Harper.

“The Scottish people, if anything, are quite proud. We won’t be told what to do — either by day-tripping UK government ministers coming to Scotland or indeed anybody else,” Hyslop said.

“Of course, there won’t be hard feelings. Because we expect to continue to work with colleagues across the globe. And politics is politics. But I think I respect those leaders particularly in those governments that took the position that it’s a matter for the people of Scotland to decide.

“To be fair, I think that’s what the Canadian prime minister said, ultimately.”

The night of the referendum, Hyslop got only two hours’ sleep. Then it was onto a busy day of international outreach, media interviews, and planning the next steps. At one point in that hectic day her boss, first minister Alex Salmond, resigned.

As for that ultimate step — well, that’s a conversation for another day.

She does note, however, that Scotland’s last constitutional referendum was held in 1997, and kids born that year were old enough to vote in this one. Hyslop expects big things from those kids.

“That generation certainly, I am sure, will see an opportunity and go forward.”