Scotland held a referendum to leave Great Britain on Sept. 18, 2014. No fewer than three Parti Québécois MNAs departed for that windswept corner of the world to take in the results—and, perhaps, to generate some much-needed momentum for their own separatist cause across the ocean. “The effect is already positive because of the energy it’s given to the Quebec independence movement,” PQ MNA Jean-François Lisée told the Toronto Star at the time. “You can say, ‘It’s doable, look at them, they’re doing it.’ ”
The Scots ultimately voted to remain in the United Kingdom. Even in defeat, though, Quebec sovereignists were ecstatic, if only because the Scottish National Party followed the 1993-era Parti Québécois blueprint to attempted statehood. That is to say: run on a separatist plank, govern towards a referendum, then fly the flag and act as though you’ve already won. If you lose, there’s always next time. Failure is but a prelude to victory.
It’s why the Parti Québécois’s rather muted reaction to Britain’s referendum campaign, in which over 17 million Britons voted to leave the European Union, is so strange. After all, the Leave campaign’s push to get out of the European Union was predicated on a deep mistrust of what it considered a foreign government—much as Quebec sovereignists view Ottawa.
Britain, the Leave spiel goes, is less ruled by flesh-and-blood Britons than by nameless bureaucrats from Brussels. These bureaucrats, along with the 751 EU MPs, dictate everything from the number of pillowcase fibres under your head to the number of immigrants allowed through the border. By imposing European uniformity, the EU erodes hard-fought Britishness.
Debatable as all this is, the Quebec sovereignist arguments for leaving Canada are virtually the same. Whether in Quebec, Catalonia, or the United Kingdom, nationalist movements seek to free one’s people from the yoke of a foreign power. And in the U.K., it actually worked.
Oddly, though, not one PQ MNA visited the country during the campaign to soak up the enthusiasm. When the Leave side won last week, the PQ responded with a 135-word press release noting that the party “notes the results” of the U.K. referendum. In 2014, the PQ celebrated during and after what became a losing nationalist campaign. Yet the party and its faithful have remained silent on a winning one. What gives?
First, there’s history. Britain has long been the subject of fevered nationalist nightmares, and the antagonist in Quebec’s narrative of subjugation and suffering. There are real, live human beings in the province who believe this country remains Britain’s useful idiot in the latter’s war with France, fought nearly 260 years ago. Most Quebec nationalists have dialled back on the lingo since the days of White Niggers of America. But in the nationalist mindset, the idea that Britain might be slave to anything is absurd at best and an insult at worst.
Second, there’s demographics. Several polls found support for the Yes side in the 2014 Scottish referendum to be highest among younger age brackets. The ruling Scottish National Party was favourable to increased immigration, and a sizable swath of Scotland’s cultural communities supported exiting the U.K.
Scottish nationalism was young, inclusive, and above all relevant to every facet of society. For the PQ, this example was worth celebrating because it was what the Parti Québecois used to be, and what it could aspire to.
The Leave campaign was a reflection of what the Parti Québécois has become. As the Financial Times (among others) demonstrated, the biggest support for the Leave campaign came from older, less-educated rural voters. In the 2014 election, the PQ attempted to target this very demographic in Quebec with its so-called “Quebec values charter,” which aimed to strip religious symbols from the heads, necks and lapels of anyone receiving a government paycheque.
The PQ suffered the worst electoral drubbing in its history, and has spent much of the last two years trying to forget the failed experiment. Endorsing the successful Leave campaign would only remind people of nationalism’s darker impulses.
Lastly, there is the gong show that is post-Brexit U.K. The PQ has long suggested, as the Leave campaign did repeatedly throughout the campaign, that separation would be a painless affair. It hasn’t been. Britain’s credit rating has been downgraded, its economy sent into a tailspin; billions of dollars of capital have been wiped out.
Even if this is a temporary hiccup, there remains the social factor. During the campaign, a man shot Labour MP Jo Cox dead on the street while yelling “Britain First.” Reports of hate crimes increased by 57 per cent in the 36 hours following the Brexit vote, according to Britain’s National Police Chiefs’ Council. And while this too may be another of Britain’s temporary miseries, history suggests racial scapegoating only increases in times of economic strife.
No wonder the PQ has kept mostly quiet. Britain’s Leave campaign is a win it doesn’t need.