Quebec Premier Pauline Marois to talk sovereignty with Scottish separatists

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Canada Politics

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is in Europe this week for the annual economic forum in Davos, Switzerland but a key stop on her itinerary is Scotland, where she hopes to add an other brick or two to her Parti Quebecois' sovereignty project.

Marois, who formed a minority government after defeating the Liberals last fall, is scheduled to meet Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond in Edinburgh in what some have dubbed a "separatist summit."

Salmond's Scottish National Party, which has been in power since 2007, wants to take Scotland out of its formal union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Residents will be voting on the question in a referendum in the fall of 2014.

[Related: Marois arrives in Switzerland for Davos economic summit]

For obvious reasons the process resonates with Quebec sovereigntists, who lost two referendums (the 1995 vote by just a sliver) and hope a Yes vote in Scotland could boost their chances. More on that later.

The PQ's narrow victory over Jean Charest's burned-out Liberals was not interpreted as any kind of mandate towards sovereignty, support for which waxes and wanes but has never reached majority territory. A poll during last summer's Quebec election campaign put it at 28 per cent, with a strong majority opposed to holding a third referendum.

But that hasn't stopped the PQ from trying to advance the cause through measures such as its abortive attempt to extend language laws. The Scottish visit to examine the process there is part of the sovereigntist government's program to "build the conditions," for independence, the Globe and Mail reports.

“It will show that this [independence] is not an old idea, but a very modern idea, and Scotland is an example in this perspective,” Marois told reporters before leaving for Davos.

Marois played down her meeting with Salmond, noting she'll also be in London to address a business audience on why Quebec is a good place for them to invest.

“You know, the majority of my mission outside of Quebec for the next week will be about the economy, even in Scotland,” Marois said, according to the Montreal Gazette.

But of course sovereignty isn't far in the background of any PQ file. If Scottish nationalists succeed in persuading residents to cut the three-century-old tie with Britain, it would be seen as a boost for Quebec's prospects. A yes vote would trigger 18 months of negotiations, election of a new government and creation of a constitution, the Globe noted.

"It will tell Quebeckers that it is still possible to attain the objective," Marois said.

But the opposite could also be true. Support for Scottish independence has been volatile but hasn't topped 40 per cent in the last five years, according to polling by research firm TNS BMRB. Its latest poll, released last week, showed support for independence at 28 per cent, with opposition at 48 per cent and almost a quarter of those polled undecided.

In an interview published last weekend in the Globe, Salmond skirted a question on how the Quebec referendum experience relates to Scotland.

"Scotland’s democratic pursuit of self-determination ... is something which is universal in application but certainly we don’t look for any exact parallels between Scotland and other nations or other regions or other states," he said.

Scotland was wedded to the rest of Britain in the 1707 Act of Union, designed to end centuries of warfare (which wouldn't happen for another 50 years with the Battle of Culloden) and improve the economic lot of the vast majority of dirt-poor Scots.

[ Related: Quebec premier: I won't meddle in UK's internal politics ]

Some of those economic imperatives still drive the independence debate. Though Scotland has benefited from North Sea oil revenues, that money will eventually dry up like the oil, and arguments that an independent Scotland would prosper within the European Union have been tested by the EU's recent troubles.

And, of course, some of the same economic arguments appear in Quebec, where some fear jettisoning the financial safety net of Canadian Confederation.

A No vote in Scotland could send an unwelcome message to supporters of sovereignty in Quebec.