Scottish independence: The debate from a Czech and Canadian perspective

For most Scots the independence referendum is unlike anything they've ever experienced before.

But Canadian Ailsa Henderson's experience of the 1995 Quebec referendum means much of the debate and campaigning surrounding Scottish independence referendum comes with a sense of familiarity.

And for Michal and Vladimira Moulisova from the Czech Republic, it has given them cause to reflect on the break-up of their home country of Czechoslovakia back in 1993.

Ailsa Henderson is from Ottawa but now lives and works in Edinburgh

Image copyright Ailsa Henderson

The 1995 Quebec referendum asked voters in the Canadian province whether they should proclaim national sovereignty.

A previous referendum in 1980 saw 60% vote "No" and 40% "Yes", and was mainly concerned with things like language and culture.

In 1995, the margins were much narrower with a "No" vote declared by 50.6 to 49.4%.

Ailsa said: "The second referendum in 1995 was more of a reaction to the failed constitutional negotiations following 1980, themselves a result of the campaign tactics of the Canadian government."

But by then the issues were a lot more numerous and entrenched.

"Completely different values, different preferences for social policy and a desire for self-determination, as well as their fear for economic and linguistic future and anger at the complete refusal of the Canadian government to recognise the Province of Quebec as a nation were all concerns. Almost all my friends from Quebec were supporting the campaign for independence."

Ailsa's experience of the campaigns in Scotland also chime with her memories of the pro-independence and pro-Union campaigns in Quebec.

"There was a very risk-centred campaign from the No-side and a 'positive' campaign from the Yes. The aggressiveness is the same."

"It was a more visual campaign than here. There were posters on literally all the lampposts, ads on radio and television, and much more emotional and nationalistic message from the leaders.

"While things like posters, flags and badges have been used here in Scotland, I think in Quebec there was even more of people wanting to publicly declare which campaign they were backing. There wasn't really the same degree of celebrity endorsement in the Quebec referendum."

And while both the Scottish pro-Union and pro-independence campaigns have been quick to accuse their opponents of causing uncertainty, at least Scots have the benefit of at least understanding the question being put to them.

"There was considerably more confusion about what a Yes vote meant [in Quebec]. Although sovereignty partnership was in the question, was it a vote for [something similar to a devo-max option] or for independence?"

"There was a partnership agreement between the Quebec parties and legislation in place, but there was also an issue of uncertainty about the outcome of the partnership negotiations. Here there were two main issues: clarity over what each side wants and clarity over what it would get. The latter was likely never really available, and certainly wasn't a question in 1995, but the former was, arguably."

Michal and Vladimira Moulisova moved to Glasgow from the Czech Republic in 2007

Image copyright Michal and Vladimira Moulisova

The people of Czechoslovakia didn't even get a say on the break-up of their country back in 1993.

Michal says that while the people were disappointed, there had been no referendum to settle their country's fate.

He says: "It was a decision taken between the two leaders. Normal people were not important to the decision at all.

"They decided to split during summer or early autumn and the country split in the new year, so everything had to be resolved within six months, which it wasn't.

"They had to solve a lot of stuff several years after. In the case of one village on the borders, they couldn't decide whether this village would be part of Slovakia or Czech Republic for four or five years. Others things like a transitional currency and citizenship were sorted out very fast."

For the country, one of the greatest losses was that of prestige.

Vladimira says: "Czechoslovakia was quite well known and had quite a strong international export market. [After the split] we had to face the fact not many people knew the country, which was quite frustrating. After that, we lost a lot of markets so it was not beneficial for us.

"Lots of the changes, for example privatisation, would probably have happened anyway but it probably would have been easier to compete. There was definitely a loss of clout."

Both Vladimira and Michal say they don't think parallels between the Czech break-up and the current situation in Scotland are too obvious:

"The historical consequences and timing are very different. It happened in a transient time when economics were changing from socialistic to capitalistic economy so this was also quite different."

Nonetheless Vladimira does think Scotland and the rest of the UK could learn from the close relationship the Czech Republic and Slovakia fostered after the break-up.

"I don't think the relationship was harmed by the split.

"In terms of trade we had an above-average relationship. At one stage the EU took issue with how close the relationship was, saying we were discriminating against other EU countries because at certain places like camp sites there would be three prices - one for the Czechs, a higher price for foreigners and a discounted price for the Slovaks."

Looking forward, would it be possible for Scotland and the rest of the UK to maintain a relationship this close? Both Michal and Vladimira are hopeful.

"It depends whether the English government will want to take revenge. If the governments are prepared to solve things amicably then things might not be that different than they are now. At the end of the day Scotland needs the rest of the UK, and the rest of the UK needs Scotland.

"In the event of a No vote I hope the government in London deliver what they have promised.

"If it was just 10% of people supporting independence then maybe they could ignore it, but the fact that the polls are so close, especially when the majority of media are backing the Union, should itself tell the UK government that clearly something isn't working."

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