Fifty-two percent of seventy-two percent of UK voters voted to leave the European Union, and so, due to a lack of leadership, a poorly structured referendum, and a poorly informed electorate, Britain’s near-term political and economic future was decided by, according to the voting breakdowns, working class outrage and xenophobic old people.
This result does not, as some news reports claim, indicate that a majority of UK residents want to leave the Euro zone. In fact, it shows that only a minority felt strongly enough to vote leave, with nearly twenty-eight percent of folks being unsure, having no opinion, or just not caring enough one way or another. The fact that a minority got to decide something this massive is an indicator that the people who set up the rules of the referendum didn’t know what they were doing. This could all have been avoided by setting up referendum requirements for a “Leave” result that required a majority of the population to vote Leave, not just a majority of voters.
Technical issues like this have been an aspect of the Canadian political landscape for most of my life. In 1980, and 1995, Quebec had referendums on separating from the rest of Canada, couched in the language of economics and taxes, but really a question of xenophobia and the French Canadian identity conspiring to make Quebecers flirt with doing something really dumb.
The separatists were dealt a major blow in the first referendum when Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the father of our current Prime Minister and himself Quebecois, pointed out that many of these diehard French Canadians had English and Irish last names. Trudeau the Elder was one of Canada’s great multiculturalists, and he understood that while identity is important, it’s arbitrary. People choose for themselves what elements of their identity they’re going to highlight, or worse, wield as a cudgel against others. After the failure of the separatist side in the referendum, Quebec refused to sign the Constitution Act of 1982, otherwise known as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. None of this has anything to do with economics, taxation, or other economic concerns. It has to do with which peoples are fair game to treat as the Other. Ironically, Quebec has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of this Charter: due to the continuing political instability and arduous language laws suppressing the Quebec economy, Quebec has been the beneficiary of equalization payments designed to prevent undue suffering of Canadian citizens due to disadvantageous local economic conditions.
In 1995, Canada was divided by another referendum. The separatists had formed the Bloc Quebecois in 1991, a political party primarily concerned with “sovereignty” aka separation, for Quebec. The Bloc was formed by defectors from both the ruling Progressive Conservative and opposition Liberal parties, after the failure of the Meech Lake Accords in 1987. The Meech Lake Accords were an attempt by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to drag Quebec, kicking and screaming, into the civil rights consensus shared by the rest of the country– by offering Quebec decidedly special treatment. Due to concentration of the vote and a split of the conservative vote between the Progressive Conservatives and the hard right Reform Party, the Bloc Quebecois got enough seats in the 1993 vote to become the Official Opposition to the Liberal Government under Jean Chrétien. The companion party to the Bloc, the Parti Québécois, also became the head of the government of Quebec, campaigning on the promise of a separation vote. David Cameron should have taken note of what happened next before opening his damned mouth about a second British exit from a European trading block. The first “Brexit” vote happened in 1975, when the core of the Euro zone was referred to as the “European Economic Community”.
The 1995 referendum was a uniquely ugly part of Canadian history. Politicians started using Canada’s two official languages – English and Quebecois French – to propagandize. The provincial Quebec government did everything it could to stack the deck in favor of a separation vote, instead of a neutral process that truly assessed the will of the people of the province. Even the referendum question was subject to petty fighting and dirty tricks – the official question made it sound as though the Canadian government had agreed to a guaranteed economic partnership with a separate Quebec, when it had not. To counter the dirty tricks of the separatists, the Chrétien government devised the Sponsorship program, intended to show Quebecers the extent of the investments the federal government was making in the province. The Sponsorship program was mired in fraud and corruption, resulted in jail time for some of the participants, and nearly destroyed the federal Liberal Party.
In the wake of a very close vote in favour of Quebec remaining in Canada, the federal government passed a law dictating a formal process for negotiations between the feds and any province which wished to separate from Canada. Called “The Clarity Act”, it gave the House of Commons – Canada’s version of congress – the right to determine whether a referendum question was clear enough for a vote. It also dictated that First Nations bands would be part of the negotiations; this was a major sticking point in Quebec, because Indigenous tribes control the bulk of the Northern half of the province. As First Nations already have a form of limited self rule, they don’t much like any government telling them what to do, including the government of Quebec.
Since the 1995 referendum, Quebec struggled economically. For over ten years it wasn’t unusual to see boarded up buildings in the downtown areas of Montreal. Due to the instability, businesses had moved their Canadian head offices from Montreal where the rent was cheaper, to various parts of Ontario. Businesses continue to fight with the Quebecois government over signage requirements: Quebec is one of the only places in the world that requires copyrighted names like “Walmart” to come up with a French equivalent – “Le Magasin Walmart”, for instance, which means “The Walmart Store”. Printing unique signs for one small territory is so cost prohibitive that some companies would rather fight the government in court and pay fines than pay for the signs.
The thing that makes this all uniquely relevant to the Brexit vote was that at the core of the separation furor wasn’t really economics. It was culture. The Quebec establishment wanted unchallenged rights to control language, religion, and immigration statutes. They were willing to tank their local economy to keep out people they considered to be “not like them”. One of the turning points in the last federal election – which led to the election of Justin Trudeau – was a repudiation of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s reference to “Old Stock Canadians” in a debate. “Old Stock” is a term that traces back to French Canadian terms, “pure laine” or “pure wool” and “de souche” or “root”, and it describes “Pure blood” French Canadians, or English, Irish, and Scottish interbreeding as long as there was a shared Roman Catholic heritage.
The Canada of today is a place that at least attempts to make immigrants and refugees feel welcome. It still doesn’t always succeed, and unfortunate racism, especially against people of Muslim heritage, still does happen. That’s to be expected after two decades of post-separatist tribalism. Canada had divided into regional federal political power bases, with the Conservatives controlling the Prairies, the NDP taking the coasts, and the Liberals retreating mostly to Ontario, while the separatists controlled Quebec until the “Orange Crush” of Jack Layton’s NDP swept out the Bloc. After the country had remained relatively strong during the global economic crisis – thanks to smart-but-unpopular economic policy by Chrétien’s Liberals – Stephen Harper’s Conservatives overemphasized oil to appeal to his regional Tar Sands base in Alberta and Saskatchewan — so when the cost of oil sank, so did the country’s economic prospects. Cartoonish local politicians like Rob Ford became the fashion for a while. Canadian politics became obsessed with the appearance of “strength” instead of effectiveness, so our infrastructure crumbled, our social ties weakened, and our innovation dried up.
Welcome to your likely future the next decade, United Kingdom. Expect old tensions in Scotland and Ireland to rear up again, because they don’t agree with the vote. Expect greater divisions between city dwellers in London who voted Remain and more rural types who wanted out. You’ll fight the wrong fights, in the wrong ways, for the wrong reasons. But you’ll eventually wake up and realize it’s all stupid. The choice you have to make is how many people will be hurt and how many lives will be ruined in service of your culture war.
The other takeaway is that representative democracy doesn’t mean “the people” should vote on every major decision. David Cameron has shown a dual lack of leadership in calling for that referendum in the first place, then quitting instead of seeing through what he started. Much like Canada now, Cameron’s successor will inherit a raging mess, because day-to-day government business still has to continue while a country faces the consequences of royally screwing the pooch.
Some of the most progressive decisions in Canada’s history have been made by government action, not the direct will of the people. Canada (except Quebec) was ahead of the curve on giving women the right to vote. We were early adopters of gay marriage rights. We have a (mostly) functioning immigration and refugee processing system. We don’t tear each other apart over abortion. We respect rational religious and cultural freedoms and have adapted our official uniforms to accommodate religious headwear. We provide (mostly) universal healthcare. We’re now tackling the difficult issue of assisted dying. We do our best to actively combat racism, we don’t let our large cities crumble, and while our gun problem is increasing, we have the tough conversations on legislation to curb gun violence. We make mistakes in early legislation and we fix them. We don’t scrap bills and start all over on a regular basis.
Canada is, in many ways, a progressive beacon for the world, but the vast majority of these hugely beneficial decisions were unpopular at the time they were enacted, or they were forced by our Supreme Court. There are many bright moments in Canadian history where governments dared to do what was right for the country, even though vocal minorities, and sometimes even majorities, screamed that a socially progressive choice would lead to our doom. Our leaders, for the most part, have had the courage to lead, whether it be Justin Trudeau’s much mocked gender-parity in cabinet, or Brian Mulroney’s Free Trade agreement with the US. Even Bob Rae’s hated “Rae Day” furloughs of Ontario government employees probably saved a lot of jobs, though the public sector despised him for it. Some on the left still hate Paul Martin for his cuts to health care as federal finance minister, but he got the job done and prevented economic disaster.
Even the much-maligned Stephen Harper, despite some disastrous economic decisions, had the guts to make choices. Some of them were even good ones. Harper was the Prime Minister who finally achieved consensus with Quebec on Quebec “as a nation within a united Canada”. All parties supported the motion, and for the first time in decades, Canada is free from separatist rumblings. Harper’s largest failings came from inaction: prorogation of Parliament, a refusal to appoint senators until his hand was forced, and ignoring small problems that turned into overly large ones, like Mike Duffy. For all his talk of strength, Harper’s greatest weakness was that he too-often dithered to hold on to power for power’s sake. Government’s first priority is to keep government functioning. Any deadlock is a sign of failure. Are you listening, America? Because your big choice is coming up in November.
The UK is facing short-term calamity because its leaders failed to lead. Waves of political grandstanding have collapsed like a house of cards, and fear of the outsider festered within British leadership’s accountability gap. I suggest Britain’s next crop of decision-makers look to Canada to see how to right the ship, because despite our country’s reputation as being populated by polite apologists, we’ve got a track record of electing leaders who knew when to be badasses. Perhaps it’s even time for the rise of another Thatcher in Britain: Iron Maggie sure knew how to get things done.