Unwelcome Honesty in Westminster: The Quebec 1995 PlayBook Revisited

No secret has been made of the fact that Westminster has closely modeled the ‘No’ campaign on the campaign run by the Canadian government against the Quebec movement in 1995. There are, of course, a lot of differences in situations – inasmuch as that campaign appeared tohave a much stronger ethnic/francophone/cultural component, Quebec had never before been an independent country as opposed to a region. Quebec already has something approaching what people referred to as DevoMax a year ago – with significant autonomy in taxation and revenues, and only really wanting to expand their authority to encompass defense and foreign affairs. In contrast, Scotland is well short of that position and level of control, and some might draw parallels in the degree to which taxation and revenue are retained by Westminster (with politicians with very different priorities) being functionally similar to what one might term a ‘colony’.

Promises of more powers and money, lovebombs…all were deployed immediately before the 1995 vote in Quebec. Even a parade. Subsequently, powers were taken away, health and education funding have declined or stalled, and centralist priorities of military spending and industrial investment elsewhere in Canada have dominated. After the hollow promises, as Sol Zanetti, leader of pro-independence Quebecois party Option Nationale puts it, they now have the “worst of both worlds”.

But of course, you may cry – that could not happen here. Could it?

Well, for those who think that Yes supporters are disingenuous when they bring up the 1979 failed promise of devolution by Hume and Thatcher, and perhaps a bit too paranoid, it was enlightening to hear William Hague in charge at Prime Minister’s Questions while the three party leaders were on their ‘private audiences only, no public meetings’ flying trip to Scotland the other day. In response to a question about the ‘promises of more powers’ that were being made by Cameron and the others, William Hague candidly declared that these were just campaign manifesto promises, not government policy commitments.

Of course, you then go back and see how often the Westminster parties have made promises that strangely were the absolute reverse of what they actually did in power.

In 1997, Labour declared they had no plans to introduce tuition fees, and that they would reform the electoral system. Instead, they introduced tuition fees and failed to reform the electoral system.

In 2001, Labour promised not to introduce top-up fees. Which they then did.

In 2005, Labour promised not to raise the basic or higher rates of income tax, and that they would hold a referendum on the European Union constitution. They raised the higher rate, and did not hold a referendum on the EU constitution.

Too far into the past? Well, in 2010 the Conservatives declared they had no plans to increase VAT or abolish the Education Maintenance Allowance. They also pledged no top-down reorganisation of the NHS and no cuts to front-line services. They then increased VAT to 20%, abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance, instigated massive top-down reorganisation and privatisation of the NHS (England) and brought in the biggest peacetime cuts to front-line services.

And then, of course, there is the one so obvious that it seems cruel to mention – the Lib Dems famous promise to vote against any increase in tuition fees. Before they voted to triple them.

To have grounds of concern as to whether or not these ‘promised powers’ that the three parties cannot agree on, and will face political opposition to in Westminster, may not materialise, one does not have to believe any intent to deceive…any more than perhaps in the above examples. One merely has to note that despite the undertakings of individuals in campaigns that seemed completely black and white, the promises did not translate into reality. It simply might have been because it seemed impractical, because they ran out of time.

Or impractical because they never had any intention of holding to those particular promises in the first place. Potayto potahto.

The point is, you shouldn’t be surprised if they don’t come to pass – in any shape whatsoever.

And get worried if a last minute ‘love’ parade gets announced next week for Edinburgh or Glasgow.


“The statements by the party leaders made on this in the last few days are statements by party leaders in a campaign – not a statement of Government policy today, but a statement of commitment from the three main political parties, akin to statements by party leaders in a general election campaign of what they intend to do afterwards. It is on that basis that they have made those statements.” (William Hague, 11th September, 2014)

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