Friday 1 May 2015

Bringers of Chaos 2: Keep calm and look at Canada

(Part 1 of this series looked at reactions to the SNP's likely victory in the general election, and reasons why it will not be as cataclysmic as many believe.)

The rise of the SNP may be unprecedented in the UK; but as luck would have it, there is a recent parallel from across the Atlantic. We have seen what happens in a British-style parliamentary democracy, when a left-wing nationalist party wins a large proportion of seats.

I am referring to the Bloc Québecois, from the French-speaking province of Québec in Canada.

Flags of Québec and Canada.

The SNP doesn't like to talk about the Québecois nationalist movement because, to put it bluntly, it has failed. Québec voted No to independence in a referendum in 1980 and again in 1995, albeit by a very narrow margin the second time.

Québec shows no appetite for a third try. In the 2014 provincial elections, the nationalist Parti Québecois campaigned on the promise of another referendum, but was soundly defeated. The Bloc Québecois are the counterparts of the PQ in the Canadian House of Commons; they too have fallen on hard times, and now hold only two seats.

In its heyday though, the Bloc was a force to be reckoned with. At its height in 1993, it won 54 seats and 13.5% of the popular vote in Canada. (There are 57 seats in Québec, and 308 in the Canadian House of Commons as a whole.) The other opposition parties were so fragmented that the Bloc secured the second largest number of seats, and served as the official opposition. The size of Québec relative to Canada is more than twice as great as Scotland relative to the UK, so it is literally impossible for the SNP to do this well.

At another high point in 2004, the Bloc again won 54 seats, and 12.4% of the national vote. The election resulted in a hung parliament, with a minority government led by the centre-left Liberal party. In the 2006 election, it slipped slightly to 51 seats; but the result was again a hung parliament, with a Conservative minority government having even fewer seats than its predecessor.

In both 2004 and 2006, the Bloc was in a position to have substantial influence. It wants independence for Québec, and has a similar left-of-centre ideology to the SNP.

How did the Bloc wield this extraordinary power?

Basically, in much the same way as any other party. Deals were done in the Canadian parliament, keeping the minority governments in power. Some of those deals involved the Bloc. Maybe Québec received a few more concessions than it would have done otherwise.

Canadian democracy remained viable, Québec did not declare independence, and the economy was not destroyed by some French-speaking socialist virus. The Bloc had its time in the sun, then it stumbled. It may or may not stage a comeback.

Similar lessons could be drawn from the Catalan nationalist parties in Spain. They, too, have enjoyed great electoral success. The other Spanish political parties have done business with them, without the sky falling in. Catalonia remains a part of Spain.

It is entirely possible that in ten years, we will look back at SNP election victories and wonder what all the fuss was about.

On the other hand, there are significant differences between the UK and Canada, and reasons to be less than sanguine about the stability of the United Kingdom. I'll look at these in Part 3.

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