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Separatism, Mutual Benefit, and Language

5 September 2012

The politics of separatism, which were born in their modern form in the wake of the reification of the nation-state that took place under the influence of late modern national romanticism, have always been something which I have closely observed without participating in directly.[1] Living in Ottawa, along the border with Quebec, a veritable stone’s throw from one of the Western world’s most active movements for separation of a culturally and/or historically distinct territory from a larger sovereign unit (which is known in Canadian political parlance as ‘sovereigntism’), I have observed from close-up but never participated in the debates over language, culture, and political jurisdiction that typify the discussion over the ‘sovereignty question,’ as it is often referred to. This question has been especially prevalent in the Canadian mind of late as just yesterday we saw Quebec’s largest sovereigntist party come to power in a minority government. Soon, though, I’ll find myself in and amongst a very different separatist movement, that of Scotland. This interesting circumstance (interesting, at least, for those of us interested in the historical development of modern political ideas), has led me to make some observations on the nature of separatist rhetoric in Western liberal democracies.

The rhetoric of contemporary Quebec sovereigntism[1] is typified by appeals to the cultural distinctiveness (and, by implication, uniformity) of Quebecois society as opposed to that of the rest of Canada (often, again, and even more erroneously, viewed monolithically). This false distinction is most commonly summed in terms of language, of French-speaking Quebec vs. English-speaking Canada. This is of course a false dichotomy, as Quebec has many anglophones and allophones (persons whose first language is neither English nor French); there are significant populations of French speakers throughout the rest of Canada, most notably the Acadien communities of New Brunswick; and both are home to significant populations of First Nations (the Canadian equivalent to ‘Native American’), Inuit, and Métis (a distinct community of mixed First Nations and French settler descent) peoples. From this assertion of cultural distinctiveness and, less consistently, arguments from Quebec’s pre-British colonial history, follow, not always explicitly, arguments for increased provincial autonomy (as opposed to Canada’s other provinces, Canada being a federal state of ten provinces, including Quebec, whose rights to exist to exercise certain legislative jurisdictions are constitutionally guaranteed, and three territories, which are departments of the federal government). Anti-monarchist arguments (Canada is a Commonwealth Realm, meaning it is a constitutional monarchy whose head of state is shared with, among others, the United Kingdom) are increasingly common since the current monarchist Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, began increasing the visibility of the crown in Canadian government, which had been steadily decreasing since the premiership of Pierre Trudeau in the 1980s. The promotion of the French language figures large in the policy of sovereigntist governments. Quebec, so goes the basic argument, is too dissimilar to the rest of Canada and the country at large cares nothing for her interests or her cultural and linguistic distinctiveness.

Scottish nationalist rhetoric[3] is remarkably similar to that which predominates in Quebec, perhaps in part because the Scottish National Party’s dominant ‘gradualist’ strategy of achieving Scottish independence is based upon the Parti Québécois’ strategy of étapisme. Arguments about history, culture, and language and used as emotive launch pads to make cases for economic wellbeing and social progress. Elected separatist governments seek to slowly accumulate increased autonomy while promoting referenda to ‘let the people choose’ (the election signs covering Quebec at this very moment loudly declare “[a] nous de choisir,” ‘for us to choose’). National heroes are publicly beatified and the national language is promoted in occasionally absurd manner (Quebec has law requiring that French signage come first and be larger than English signage, even in English-speaking areas; Scotland has road signs in Scots Gaelic, all of whose 60,000 speakers also speak English, most of them better than they speak Gaelic). That Scotland would not only survive but thrive as an independent state is a more common claim than its Quebecois equivalent, perhaps because the prospect of joining the EU makes it more credible prima facie than any such argument which a Quebecois sovereigntist could make. Perhaps more amusing than telling, in both cases the question of the nature of the post-independence government is essentially an open one.[4]

The general thrust of both of these arguments for separatism is that membership in the larger polity is, for reasons that are more emotive than reasoned, no longer (or perhaps never truly was) in the best interest of the territory concerned. This is an appeal to the citizens’ innate sense of right social order, the pre-conceptual social imaginary that governs how they (and we) understand human societies to be properly constituted. The argument, essentially, is that the larger polity is no longer fulfilling it’s side of the bargain in the order of mutual benefit, the fundamental notion that humans come together in society for their mutual and collective good, that some other dominant in the larger polity (Anglophone Canadians in Quebec or the English in Scotland) is stacking the deck in their own favour or failing to give the smaller territory its due and that smaller territory would be better off on its own, looking after the interests of its own people. This sort of civic or liberal nationalism (though Quebecois sovereigntism has major strains of cultural and linguistic nationalism as well) combined with the rhetoric of a liberal-individualist model of citizenship (as opposed to the civic-republican model which previously dominated liberal nationalist discourse) and emotive inciting of nationalistic sentiment makes for an odd rhetorical mix that seems often to come down to ‘us vs them,’ with ‘them’ changing as the relevant rhetor requires. The potential for xenophobic and/or more militantly nationalistic elements to creep is great. Pauline Marois, since last night Premier-elect of Quebec, has been frequently criticised for standing only for the ‘Pure Laine’ (‘pure stock,’ referring to white, Christian, francophone Quebecers). Her anti-Islamic policy propositions, whether they reflect her personal opinions or are merely to appeal/pander to her rural base, do nothing to counter this appearance. The SNP seems to attract less such criticism and one wonders how much this has to do with Scotland’s lack of such an easy, go-to difference between it and the rest of the United Kingdom with which to foment alienation as Quebec has in the French language. The cultural distance between Scotland and England is so much shorter than that between Quebec and the rest of Canada as they literally speak the same language (well, with different vowel sounds). Given the immense role which language has played in the nationalism of the past (see German and Italian unification as well as Pan-Arabism) one wonders whether that might not be a key factor in colouring the tone of separatist discourse away from the language of liberal nationalism and towards that of ‘us vs. them.’

Notes and Bibliography

[1] National romanticism, the nationalistic strand of the Romantic movement in late modern art and aesthetics, also gave birth to the somewhat less successful movement of unificationism along the lines of cultural and linguistic nationalism, typified by the never-completed projects of German and Italian unification.

[2] As typified by the by-far largest sovereigntist political party, the center-left Parti Qébécois. The PQ, as they are usually known, contest Quebecois provincial elections and yesterday came to their first major electoral victory in almost a decade, forming a minority government with 34% of the popular vote. Minor sovereigntist parties include the Bloc Québécois, a nominally independent party contesting Canadian federal elections but which operates in effect as the federal arm of the PQ and which came to electoral ruin at the hands of the social democratic NDP in the most recent federal election and Quebec solidaire, a major-minor socialist party. The now-defunct center-right Action démocratique de Québec advocated increased devolution of powers to Quebec’s provincial legislature, the National Assembly. The currently-contesting center-right Coalition Avenir Quebec advocates a ten year moratorium on referenda to begin succession negotiations.

[3] As typified by the Scottish National Party, which contests elections to the European Parliament; to Westminster; and to Scotland’s devolved parliament, where it currently forms the Scottish government.

[4] While the SNP does officially hold that Scotland would patriate the British monarchy, it has large and vocal republican elements, including, officially and importantly, its student and youth wings.


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