Scottish Separatism, Canada, and Confirmation Bias

I am in Scotland this week, where I will be attending a conference to discuss the possible implications of next year’s referendum.  I have no expertise on Scotland, but much of my research (before my current NATO project) has focused on separatism.  One key question is whether events in one place matter that much for events elsewhere—is secession contagious?

I have long argued that separatism is about as contagious as cancer rather than the common cold – groups and countries exposed to the same external forces will behave differently.  For example, ethnic conflict and separatism did not spread from one Eastern European country to another and throughout the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  Instead the de-legitimization of Communism and the onset of political competition did seem to move from country to country.  These forces then combined to cause multiple countries to break apart at the same time.

What the outcome of Scotland’s referendum will mean for Canada is the point of interest for the CIC audience. At the conference in Scotland, I am going to argue that the outcome will be largely irrelevant outside of the UK.   Because of the power of confirmation bias, I do not think that whatever happens over there is going to matter across the Atlantic.

Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to pay attention to that which confirms your predilections and ignore that which does not.  So, if one wants to secede, one will learn from an event only those lessons that encourage pursuit of that goal.  And if one wants the country to remain intact, then one will draw only those lessons that reinforce beliefs about the superiority of federalism.

We have seen this play out many times, including when Kosovo declared its independence and when Montenegro had its referendum.  Quebec secessionists pointed to Kosovo’s success and said, ‘hey, they got to unilaterally declare independence, so that kind of stuff is ok now.’  Of course, this ignores a variety of stubborn and inconvenient truths, including the reality that until NATO created de facto, if not de jure, separation in 1999, Kosovo faced an oppressive regime.  That the international community, or at least a significant part of it, was prepared to support Kosovo reflects the fact that Kosovo, unlike Quebec, had no recourse through their federal political system.

The more direct example of conflicting lessons is Montenegro, which also seceded from Serbia.  The European Union mediated the divorce, requiring a referendum for Montenegro to become independent.  The Quebec secessionists pointed to this event and said ‘look, they can do it, why can’t we?’  They entirely overlooked the requirement of fifty-five percent of those voting had to be in favour that the EU had set.  Canadian federalists, on the other hand, really liked the idea of someone other than the separatists setting the rules—the EU in this case, Canada in the Quebec case—and especially liked the fifty-five percent requirement.

Next year, when Scotland holds its referendum, there will be enough conflicting claims as to its significance that Quebec separatists and Canadian federalists will both be able to draw their preferred lessons.  If the Scottish separatists win, then the Quebec separatists can point to a very similar case—British-style institutions, no oppression of any significance, and say that the situation is so similar that Quebec should become independent, too.  The Canadian federalists would point to the negotiations that went on between the Scots and the British government over the language of the question, so that the lesson to draw is that Quebec should work with Canada to create a clear question.  If the Scottish separatists lose the referendum, the Quebec separatists will say that the example really is not that similar since there is not a deep language divide and so on.  And the Canadian federalists would say, ‘see, democracies do not need to break apart’.

The confirmation bias of which I speak is not just a psychological process but also a political one.  The parties in Quebec that focus on independence must do so or else lose much of their raison d’etre.  The Parti Quebecois, if it looked upon a failed Scottish referendum and realized that its own dreams of independence were not going to be realized, would have to figure out another way to justify its existence (and being the party of xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment won’t be enough – too many others are also moving in that direction). Without the nationalist discourse centered around independence, Quebec parties would have to focus on good governance, and good luck with that.

Of course, this entire post may be a product of my personal confirmation bias, as I developed a set of beliefs about twenty years ago about how separatism works in the world.  Maybe I tend to squeeze into those beliefs the events of the day in ways that confirm my basic views about the virulence of separatism.  I have always believed that nearly all politics is local, including foreign policy.*

To be sure, the last referendum here was close enough that encouraging lessons from elsewhere might swing a few voters and that might be enough.  However, those votes are likely to be offset by a few soft nationalists swinging the other way – those who voted yes last time but have learned lessons from elsewhere that would discourage them from doing so again.

That is really the problem – there are so many lessons to draw from the dynamics beyond Quebec and beyond Canada, that we can pick and choose whichever lessons we want to learn.

*  Which is why I understand why a cash-strapped Quebec would be thinking of launching the Quebec International Solidarity Agency now, yet another nationalist project aimed mostly at the domestic audience despite pretensions of helping out the world.

By Steve Saideman

This article is published in partnership with the Canadian International Council and its international-affairs hub  OpenCanada.

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