Scotland, Newfoundland and Labrador: the future of small nations

Scottish National Party loses a referendum, but wins a tremendous victory for Scotland and small nations around the world

Much of the western world – and beyond – found itself gripped by the referendum on Scottish independence last week, especially as the gap between the sides narrowed in the final weeks of campaigning.

And, although independence lost 45 percent – 55 per cent (hardly the ‘decisive’ victory media has been claiming), this observer at least has no qualms about calling it an unmitigated victory for those struggling for Scottish independence. And, by extension, those struggling for self-determination around the world.

The long view

The success of the Scottish National Party – even without a ‘yes’ vote – has been nothing short of amazing. They went from 35 elected seats in the 1999 Scottish parliamentary elections, to forming a majority government with 69 seats in 2011. They have worked passionately to use what powers they do have to reshape Scotland in a fearlessly progressive manner. When the organizing for a referendum on independence began, they waged a brilliant campaign against the collective efforts of Britain’s economic and political establishment, and even the media, which – with few exceptions – blatantly took sides against Scottish independence. And against this onslaught they raised support for independence to levels unseen in recent years (polls varied, but went from roughly 32 per cent supporting independence in 2012 to the 45 per cent pro-independence result last week) and very nearly won a vote they hadn’t been expected to come close to winning when it all began.

What does this mean, then? What lessons are there, and how are they relevant to us in Canada, in Newfoundland and Labrador, and elsewhere?

A politics of hope

One of the clearly distinguishing factors of the Scottish National Party (SNP) is that in a western world that has been beset by grim-faced neoliberal and conservative ideologues who spend their time in front of the cameras shaking their heads, pronouncing woeful predictions of doom and demanding fiscal austerity policies, the SNP represented a very different kind of politics. As Ray Critch observed in his column “The lessons of failure”, they pursued an overtly and unapologetically progressive agenda (unlike the rest of the UK, tuition at Scottish universities is free, and control of the welfare system – to ensure a more generous redistribution – was a key campaign issue). They pushed for a more equitable distribution of wealth (as much as they were able without the legislative powers independence would have given them) and made clear that a just and inclusive society was the purpose and goal of the economic prosperity and self-determination they sought.

This was a politics of inclusion. In a very deliberate departure from those well-known Quebec separatist leaders who made appeals to ‘traditional values’ and blamed foreigners for losing the last referendum, the SNP embraced immigrants and ethnic and religious minorities, were loudly critical of what they described as the “anti-immmigrant rhetoric of the right-wing press”, and made it clear that the independent Scotland they were fighting for was one that included all peoples and faiths, and would be more welcoming than the frightened fortresses England and the United States have made of their borders.


But perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the SNP in the referendum campaign was the fact that the voter turnout was a mind-boggling 84.6 per cent. The last time the UK had a voter turnout close to that was in 1950. This demonstrates the first lesson of the Scottish referendum: democracy does matter to people, and people will participate when they think it will actually lead to change. SNP leader Alex Salmond put it best in his own words, in his referendum night speech conceding defeat for the independence movement:

“A turnout of 86% is one of the highest in the democratic world for any election or any referendum in history. This has been a triumph for the democratic process and for participation in politics.

“For example, the initiative by which our 16 and 17-year-olds were able to vote has proved to be a resounding success – I suspect no-one will ever again dispute their right and ability to participate fully and responsibly in democratic elections.

“I’ve said it a number of times in this campaign that the most moving thing I saw was the queue of people in Dundee two or three weeks ago, patiently waiting to register to vote – most of them for the first time ever, choosing to participate in the democratic process.

“Today in Inverurie I met a 61-year-old lady just coming out of the polling station who had never voted before in her life.

“I met a soldier, a former soldier, who hadn’t voted since he left the Army some 24 years ago.

“These people were inspired to enter the democratic politics by the thought they could make a difference in building something better for the country.

“These are people who all of us, as we campaigned, have met and been inspired by and all of us are a part of all of that experience that we have encountered.

“Whatever else we can say about this referendum campaign, we have touched sections of the community who have never before been touched by politics, these sections of the community have touched us and touched the political process.

“I don’t think that will ever be allowed to go back to business as usual in politics again.”

What was it really all about?

Ultimately, many independence movements boil down to one very simple question: is it better to be a small nation, or a large one? Many people have been conditioned to automatically think ‘bigger is better’. This is a lingering effect of the Age of Empires, where the larger your empire the stronger you were (and the more you could bully and rob from those around you). In an era where politics is conducted less and less by military blitzkrieg, and more and more through trade and international political engagement, the notion of big lumbering countries being an effective way to organize your state is rapidly falling out of fashion. Regions are preferring the more flexible option of going their own way and making their own international treaties and internal policies, rather than nailing their fate to some grand empire-building exercise. That is not to say that the danger of military conflict breaking out has disappeared in our world – conflicts like those in the Ukraine, the Middle East and many regions of Africa demonstrate we haven’t learned to solve all of our problems peacefully yet.

Ultimately, many independence movements boil down to one very simple question: is it better to be a small nation, or a large one?

But by and large the notion that it is acceptable to wage politics at gunpoint is dying out, and military alliances can serve the function of regional defense without requiring interference in local politics – NATO is a good example. After all, Switzerland and Liechtenstein and Iceland don’t exactly appear worried about their size in today’s world.

But these moves toward smaller nations have created some complicated tensions. Within giant states, politicians and other elites who have invested their fortunes and their futures in ways that are tied up with the continued existence of these large states, are now faced with the struggle to hold them together. Witness the many secession struggles in countries like India or China – large nations that were watching the referendum quite nervously. Devolution can happen peacefully (witness the Baltic states, tiny countries that are now doing quite well) or it can happen violently (witness the former Yugoslavia).

The general rule of thumb seems to be that when a country crushes or forcefully smothers a peaceful independence movement, that independence movement almost inevitably springs back, armed and violent. Far better to go the peaceful route, if you ask me. Even familiar European states are struggling over their identities: Catalonia, in Spain, plans to a referendum on independence later this year (one the Spanish government considers illegal).

So this is a much broader issue than just Scotland and the United Kingdom. It’s an ongoing process – one which began with the decolonization and breakup of the big empires of the 18th and 19th centuries (a process that also happened both peacefully and violently, depending on how much the empires resisted the process), and one which is now continuing to spread through the larger countries that emerged in the wake of empire.

In short, local regions are asserting their self-identity and demanding local political empowerment. They are tired of being ruled from a distant capital, and having their fates wound up in complicated political dealings which often involve trading the interests of one region for those of another. They want both the flexibility and the accountability guaranteed by local decision-making. This is not a bad thing. In fact it’s quite sensible.

The Canadian Empire

Even the creation of Canada was based on the ‘build ‘em big’ premise. Britain urged the regions that now form Canada to come together so that the US wouldn’t gobble up the rest of North America (this was one of the key reasons they pushed Newfoundland and Labrador into Confederation as well). And at the time – with very little in the way of modern infrastructure in some parts of the country – it did make some sense to use the resources of the industrialized parts of what is now Canada to develop the rest (if you’re the industrial development type). But in today’s Canada, we have infrastructure, industry, all the things you need in most parts of the country to allow the various regions to go their own way quite happily.

In fact, one way of looking at it might be that the notion of the Canadian Confederation was a fine short-term strategy for development, and that it never needed to be anything more than temporary. Now that there’s fine highways and satellite television and wi-fi throughout the various provinces, the development project which was Canada might very well have outlived its usefulness.

You’re breaking my heart

Okay, but what about nostalgia? Aha – when you get down to it, this is really what most anti-separatism sentiment is about. People get these emotional fixations on a particular national identity: they like their national song, Molson Canadian ads, milk being sold in bags, et cetera, and somehow feel that if that’s taken away, then their world has been shattered. Sort of like a marriage breaking down, or that favourite burger joint on the corner that you’ve eaten at for 20 years finally going out of business. These things make us sad. Fair enough. But sometimes they’re for the best, and better things come in their wake. Change is necessary.

Nostalgia was, I would say, one of the driving forces fueling the ‘no’ side in the Scottish referendum. Very sensible economic and political arguments were made by the ‘yes’ side and, while obviously subject to debate, the only explanation for the emotional intensity the issue brought forth in England was this very factor: nostalgia. Sadness and fear at the idea of change. It’s a very normal human emotion. But not, I would argue, a sensible basis on which to make a decision about the political future of your country.

There’s a similar sentiment, I would also say, with the vehement anti-Quebec separatism in the rest of Canada. After all, what does it really matter if Quebec separates? How will that change the everyday life of somebody living in Alberta, or P.E.I.? The fact is: it won’t. But it will affect this image they have of the country they belong to. There’s been some coverage about a mosque that opened up in South Africa recently that publicly welcomes gay Muslims. And there have been angry protests and death threats against that mosque by other Muslims. Why? They don’t have to worship there if they don’t want. But it affects the image they hold in their imagination of what Islam represents. Just like the ordination of female bishops or the legalization of gay marriage has riled some Christian worshippers.

Change is always hard to deal with, and we like to cling to these images we formed in our heads long ago and not have to deal with revising them just because other people aren’t happy with them and are pushing for change. Again, this is a very human response. But it’s not logical and it’s one that we have to learn to cope with and rise above. Waving around a maple leaf might make some people feel good inside. But if it makes others – ardent Quebecois, or First Nations communities whose land has been stolen and who are relegated to living in third world conditions without sanitation or drinking water – feel only a reminder of their oppression, can we really wave that flag with any sense of integrity?

Nostalgia – and national pride is little more than that – is a natural emotion. But like other emotions, like jealousy or envy, we have to realize that sometimes it can do more damage than good.

All right, I don’t feel so bad any more. But what about the bottom line?

Finally then, there’s the economic argument. Can Scotland – or Quebec, or Newfoundland and Labrador – even survive on its own?

In some ways, this is a fruitless discussion to have. What possibilities does independence open up? Everything – and nothing. The fact is, we can never predict what the economic future will bring. That is impossible. Nobody (in mainstream economics) expected any of the recent recessions, bubbles, financial crises, or even the Great Depression. There is no way of predicting what the future will bring. Will our natural resources run out? Will we discover more? Will the cod come back? Will they disappear again? What will climate change bring? Prosperity or ruin?

Can we respond better to changing economic circumstances if economic-political decisions are made locally, or if they are made in Ottawa?

We could argue these things all day and get no closer to the truth. You can’t predict the future. You can make sensible decisions based on reasonable projections of what’s likely to happen a few months down the road, and you can make broader decisions that will enhance your ability to respond to uncertainty (for instance, using natural resource revenue to create a legacy fund), but you cannot make long-term political decisions based on predictions of economic outcomes. Our economic future will not be secured by independence, but neither will it be secured by staying within a country like Canada. The fact is: no one knows what the future will bring, and therefore no one knows which option would serve us better.

In the face of this, the best way to secure our economic future is to make sensible decisions in response to the situations that do arise. In other words, our economic future will not be guaranteed by tacking our fate to this country or that country, or by going out on our own. None of these are guarantees. There are no guarantees. Everything will depend on how we react to concrete situations.

So the economic question is really this: can we respond better to changing economic circumstances if economic-political decisions are made locally, or if they are made in Ottawa? Let’s not dance around it – that is the question we have to debate.

Local power? Or distant power?

Some people would say no. They distrust our political culture, and for good reason. Sometimes it does not inspire faith. But here’s a fact: it’s us who elect them. At the federal level, by contrast, we only elect seven out of 308 seats in the House of Commons. Think about that. Even if every single one of our MPs agreed on something, there’s no way they could wield any influence on our behalf without the support of other provinces.

Others would say yes. They would say that the decision-makers in Ottawa are no better, and in fact make awful decisions as well (Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are not exactly very popular around here). Even if both provincial and Ottawa legislatures leave us with little confidence, many would say it’s still better for decisions to be made here; Ottawa politicians can’t really understand the lived reality here, and at least it would be easier to hold local politicians to account for their decisions. (We all knows where they grocery shop, sure!)

Are we willing to rely on ourselves to make the decisions that will shape our future?

There’s another way of asking this question: do we have the confidence in ourselves? Are we willing to rely on ourselves to make the decisions that will shape our future? Being part of Canada is, in many ways, a sort of cop-out, a way of dodging responsibility. Even if we make poor decisions, well the broader country will always be there to bail us out. Sometimes it can be easier to give up your decision-making powers to somebody else since you’re no longer on the hook for how things turn out. For many ardent federalists, that is the source of their pro-Canadianness. It is not, as they say, a faith in Canada, but rather a lack of faith in their own abilities.

But there are others who would say no: we can and should have faith in ourselves. We know what is important to us, we know what sorts of lives and what types of communities we want to live in, and if we in fact had the power to make these decisions that would decisively shape our local future, we would rise to the occasion and do the right thing.

If you ask me, I think that we would.

Many forms of independence

The Scottish referendum revealed another point about modern independence movements. The definition of ‘independence’ is not so clear-cut in today’s world. One of the questions which arose was whether, if Scotland separated, there would remain some form of currency union. “No way!” said many power-brokers in England, but they were just trying to influence the vote and scare Scottish independence supporters. “Of course there will be,” said the Scottish sovereigntists, calling England’s bluff – because if England stuck to its guns in order to punish Scotland, it would also cause negative outcomes to the British economy too.

A similar debate erupted in Canada during the last Quebec referendum. It’s a familiar pattern: “If you leave you can’t use our money!” But to actually carry through and make Quebec use its own currency, would involve damage to the Canadian economy, given how intertwined the economies of the two neighbouring countries would be.

And besides, now we have Europe, a whole hodgepodge of countries which have given up their individual currencies in order to pursue the more efficient policy of a single currency.

The point is this: there are many models for how to do things. Political independence and common currency. Political independence and different currencies. It’s not a simple either-or question: we have the ability, if we act rationally and not emotionally, to shape new and creative forms of relationships.

Back to Scotland. In order to squeak through with its victory, England had to promise considerable extra powers to Scotland. Now the other regions of the UK – Wales, Northern Ireland – are demanding those extra powers too. The Labour Party has proposed a national convention on the issue. In a very real sense, even without getting a 51 per cent majority, the Scottish independence campaigners have achieved a tremendous victory. They will have new powers, and the same currency. Who really won what?

Reflections from across the pond

Independence comes in many forms and cannot really be portrayed by a simple yes-no vote. What matters are the powers of self-determination that a region has. And there are an infinite variety of choices and arrangements that countries can choose from in this regard.

In that sense, the question of independence for Newfoundland and Labrador – and even between Newfoundland and Labrador – is one of the division of powers. Where should decisions about particular things be made, and by whom?

An independence struggle for Newfoundland and Labrador would ultimately be a struggle for more local self-determination. Should we be able to control fishing off our shores? Should Labrador be able to determine whether mega-developments in Labrador go ahead, and what percentage of revenues they will gain from them? Should Newfoundland and Labrador be able to control immigration, thus allowing in workers to revitalize our struggling rural communities and meet the growing labour shortage, without the racist restrictions and exploitation of the federal temporary foreign worker programs? Should we be able to exert greater control over taxation and the revenues accrued therefrom? Should we have control over Employment Insurance, given that Conservative reforms in Ottawa have had a negative impact on our rural communities?

 An independence struggle for Newfoundland and Labrador would ultimately be a struggle for more local self-determination.

These are serious questions that we need to be discussing. Before we say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to independence from Canada, we need to figure out what that means. What are we lacking? What do we need to ensure a prosperous and happy future in the ever-changing present-day global reality?

And yes, it means that much as Newfoundland and Labrador might – and I think should –
reconsider our position in the Canadian federation, we also need to reconsider our relationship with each other. That doesn’t mean we have to part ways. But we can come up with a more equitable division of powers and revenues and responsibilities, which corrects the injustices currently waged by the provincial government against Labrador, and which gives us the basis for a true partnership with which to leverage our collective greater self-determination from Canada.

Scotland serves as an inspiration because its people came together to denounce the status quo – everything from the division of legislative powers to the right-wing drift of British conservative politics – and demand change. And, with or without formal independence, they got it.

There’s a lesson to learn there for us. If we want change, we can have it. But first we need to start talking to ourselves about what that change will be. The Scots are doing that and have gained for it immensely. Can we?

As Alex Salmond put it on referendum night, even while acknowledging the result, no state of affairs is final or permanent – the fate of nations is always an ongoing journey.

“Friends, sometimes it is best to reflect where we are in a journey.

“45 per cent, 1.6 million of our fellow citizens voting for independence.

“I don’t think any of us, whenever we entered politics, would have thought such a thing to be either credible or possible.

“Over the last few weeks we have seen a scare and a fear of enormous proportions – not a scaremongering directed at the Scottish people but the scare and the fear at the heart of the Westminster establishment as they realise the mass movement of people that was going forward in Scotland.

“Today of all days as we bring Scotland together, let us not dwell on the distance we have fallen short, let us dwell on the distance we have travelled and have confidence the movement is abroad in Scotland that will take this nation forward and we shall go forward as one nation.”

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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