Last week's curious visit to Edinburgh by the Québec separatist leader and premier Pauline Marois has provoked discussion about the subtleties of Scottish nationalism, which has led to one conclusion: all independence movements are not necessarily the same.
After quite deliberately hyping her meeting with Alex Salmond – it was set up in the Canadian and Québécois media as "historic" and a "separatist summit" - Marois left with little to show and not a great deal to boast about.
Salmond extended courtesies and showed good manners – they exchanged gifts and issued a joint statement vague on detail - but a summit it was not. There was no joint press conference, no communique nor a grand dinner at his official residence, Bute House.
Marois had to host an awkward press conference at the base of the main staircase of her hotel, the Caledonian, in Edinburgh.
The Montreal Gazette called it as a "tepid" encounter. A cartoon in the French-language newspaper Le Devoir showed her meeting a kilted man with a bag over his head.
A blogger writing for Bellacaledonia and Tom Peterkin, a political correspondent with the Scotsman, believe there is a fairly obvious reason why: there is an ethnic, cultural dimension to Salmond's wariness about forging alliances with the Québécois.
The Scottish National party is far more atuned to, and energised by, Scotland's close bonds through more than a century of emigration with English-speaking Canada, not the Francophone Québécois. And in turn, the Parti Québécois agenda is heavily defined by its ethnic and language divisions with Anglophone Canada.
Harry McGrath, writing in Bellacaledonia, said Canada's links to Scotland are a defining part of its history:
'The Scots in Canada' is one of the nation's founding myths. From the Highland and Orkney fur traders who opened up the north and west of the country, to the first prime minister John A. MacDonald (from Glasgow) who bound confederated Canada with his trans-national railway, to Tommy Douglas (from Falkirk) who distinguished it from its giant southern neighbour with his public healthcare system, Scots from the old country are commonly seen as the backbone of the new...
[In] the 2011 census that there were 5 million self-identified Scots in Canada. The survey revealed where they live, what they do and the fact that, paradoxically, they are growing in number from census to census despite ever-diminishing first-generation Scottish immigration. In short, Canada is the one host country where the Scottish Government can locate its Diaspora if it wants to and mobilize it in support of its homeland if it can.
But this tension is not new. It emerged nearly 40 years ago, when the Times Educational Supplement organised a conference on Scottish devolution in 1975, which was attended by René Lévesque, then the pre-eminent Québécois sovereignty campaigner who co-founded the Parti Québécois and became Québec's first separatist premier in 1976.
According to someone involved with the event, who has asked for anonymity to preserve old friendships with party activists, recalled:
Arguably the first major public debate on what was then referred to as 'devolution' took place on a Saturday in the summer of 1975 when 500 people attended a conference in the George Square theatre in Edinburgh.
The event, designed to explore the possible impacts devolution might have on education in Scotland, was organised by the Times Educational Supplement, Scotland in part to mark the weekly paper's 10th anniversary, and a full report of both the morning and afternoon sessions was spread across two pages of the following week's Supplement.
René Lévesque of the Parti Québécois had been brought over as one of the principal speakers, Professor John McIntyre being another (in the early '80s McIntyre was principal of New College and Moderator of the General Assembly).
Lévesque expressed surprise to have had so little contact with anyone from the SNP. It was rumoured that this was because the SNP didn't wish to be reported in Canada as allying itself to the Parti Québécois because so many ex-pat Scots in Canada were strongly against the Parti Québécois.
Lévesque flew into and out of Prestwick and two or three SNP people went to meet him at Prestwick when he was leaving; no publicity was given to the meeting.
There were strong suspicions the SNP then was heavily reliant on funding from ex-pats in Canada. While there had been isolated and low-level incidents of Scottish nationalist militancy in the 70s, McGrath points out that in Québec there had been a series of separatist terrorist bombings in 1970 and the murder of Québec's labour minister, Pierre Laporte by the Front de libération du Québec, which, active since 1963, had kidnapped Laporte with the British trade commissioner James Cross.
If true then it is no longer so now (for both movements). There may well be other reasons why Salmond was courteous but not effusive.
As Peterkin pointed out, as well as the ethnic element which Salmond and the SNP strongly resist in their independence narrative based around civic nationalism, the Parti Québécois is most closely associated with the disparaging "neverendums" tag, which Salmond wants to avoid.
It has twice lost its independence referendums, latterly on a quite complex and controversial question, while Marois also heads a minority government which is quite likely to face another election soon.
However, the SNP is not necessarily or inherently hostile to independence movements which do have their own strong ethnic and language components: at its last annual conference in Perth, the SNP MEP Ian Hudghton chaired a sell-out fringe event with senior left of centre Catalan and Basque separatist leaders, and the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru president, Jill Evans, paid for by the European Free Alliance grouping in the European parliament.
Evans told the event that the Welsh, Scots, Basques and Catalonians were partners:
This is not a race and it's not a competition; we're all working together in solidarity with one another. It is a process of normalisation: each of our nations, in its own distinctive way, seeking normality in the wider European family of nations.
That distinction suggests strongly that Salmond's delicate handling of Marois's visit has less to do with the principle of ethnicity underpinning or defining independence movements abroad, but much more to do with Scotland's own allegiances and strategic interests.
According to McGrath, the SNP and the broader independence movement may wish too to claim Canada's recent political history as a model for their prospectus for Scotland:
To confound this even further, it is not Québec but Canada that is the obvious contemporary model for Scotland: at least the Canada that emerged out of the 1970s and prevailed until the dawn of its current right wing central government. That was a Canada that welcomed immigrants, saw multiculturalism as a good thing, emphasised healthcare, welfare and education and deemphasised militarism.
Scotland is hitting all of those same buttons and for the same reason. The 70s vision of Canada as a European-style social democracy is the one that Scotland is, for the most part, pursuing.
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image: © Ronnie Macdonald