Why Canadians should watch closely as Scotland's independence campaign ramps up

A little over seven months from now, the people of Scotland will vote on whether or not to separate from the United Kingdom and become an independent country.

A lot of Canadians with British and especially Scottish roots will be paying attention as the campaign leading up to the Sept. 18 referendum ramps up. But all Canadians should take an interest in the outcome for an obvious reason – Quebec.

There are equally obvious parallels between the two situations. The separatist factions are in the minority in both Scotland and Quebec, though recent polls suggest they've been gaining support.

There's also uncertainty on how easy it will be to untangle a three-century political and economic union. Will the Scots be allowed to use the British pound, for instance? Would it receive separate membership in the European Union? How will the divorcees divvy up their joint assets and debts? What about defence?

About the only aspect absent from the campaign, compared with Quebec, has been language.

Many Scots, like a lot of Quebecers, while displaying a marked ambivalence to their membership in the larger state, still think they're better off within Great Britain than outside it.

British Prime Minister David Cameron tried to build on that sentiment this week, warning a vote for independence would reduce the United Kingdom's international stature and damage political and economic stability.

[ Related: Quebec watches closely as Scotland pitches independence ]

“We would be deeply diminished without Scotland,” Cameron said in a speech Friday to an audience at the London Olympic velodrome, Reuters reported.

“Together, we get a seat at the UN Security Council, real clout in NATO and Europe, and the prestige to host events like the G8. Make no mistake: we matter more as a United Kingdom – politically, militarily, diplomatically and culturally too.

"If we lost Scotland, if the U.K. changed, we would rip the rug from under our own reputation.”

The speech was aimed at English, Welsh and Northern Irish citizens, whom Cameron implored to reach out to Scots and persuade them to stay. It was quickly dismissed by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, head of the governing Scottish National Party, who in an interview with BBC News labelled Cameron a "big feartie," for refusing to debate him.

Cameron no doubt was thinking of the deep historical significance of the 1707 Act of Union that merged the states of England and Scotland into one country after centuries of sporadic feuding and open warfare.

Although the path to the agreement was messy – England was accused of using pressure to induce a favourable vote in the Scottish Parliament – the union triggered an explosion of trade and economic expansion for the British Empire, with Scots in the forefront.

A dissolution of the union (Ireland was brought into the union in 1808 but won its independence – except for the north – in 1922) would signal the final diminution of the island kingdom whose empire once ruled over a quarter of the world's population.

Likewise, Quebec was a founding member of Canadian Confederation in 1867 and central to Canada's growth as a nation. Yet a significant portion of its francophone population have not felt they belong. After the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s shook off the smothering guidance of the Catholic Church, nationalists worked steadily to reduce the influence of the province's anglo business elites.

[ Related: Quebec Premier Marois would revive sovereignty push with PQ majority ]

Marois says a new independence vote will only take place if Quebecers want it. CP/Jacques BoissinotThe rise of Parti Quebecois in the mid-1970s put separation on the front burner, leading to a referendum in 1980, where a vaguely worded question about something called sovereignty association went down to unquestioned defeat.

But a 1995 referendum with a clearer question came within a percentage point of success for separatists. Some believe an outreach by thousands of Canadians in the campaign's final days – the kind of thing Cameron was talking about Friday – may have tipped the balance.

The September referendum question, by contrast, is a model of Scottish straight talk: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

Anyone who's followed the Quebec sovereignty debate will hear some familiar arguments for and against Scottish independence, summarized in Britain's This Week.

Opponents warn an independent Scotland wouldn't have the tax base to support the current level of public services, not to mention national defence and domestic infrastructure. Scotland, if it gains EU membership, would have less clout than a united Britain and its economy would find it tougher to weather the strains of globalization.

But supporters point to Norway and Ireland as evidence small countries can have dynamic economies (though Norway's revenues depend heavily on North Sea oil production and Ireland's economy crumbled in the 2008 financial crisis).

A point that will resonate in Quebec is the argument that independence will allow the Scots and English to rebuild their deteriorating relationship on a equal footing. As The Week put it, "an amicable no-faults divorce is better than a bickering marriage." Sound familiar?

Quebecers seem in no hurry to go through another divisive referendum campaign. PQ Premier Pauline Marois, who observers see positioning her minority government for a spring election, said this week there would only be third referendum if Quebecers want one.

The PQ plans to issue a white paper on Quebec's future, the Montreal Gazette reported, and Quebecers would be consulted but the process would not centre on sovereignty, she said.

Regardless of Marois' assurances, if the PQ wins a majority pressure will build from hard-core sovereigntists for another referendum 20 years after Canada barely survived an existential threat to its existence.