Canadian political analyst Chantal Hébert has just published a book about the 1995 Quebec referendum entitled The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was (Amazon; 17-minute interview). As you may recall, this was a contest that the “Yes” side lost by the slimmest of margins, and instead of giving a prerecorded speech declaring Quebec’s independence, Premier Jacques Parizeau bitterly blamed the loss on “money and the ethnic vote,” and resigned the next day. Since then Canada has retained its geographical integrity and commitment to bilingualism and multiculturalism, or Quebec has continued to suffer under the jackboot of Anglophone oppression, according to your point of view. Hébert’s interviews with seventeen of the main actors in the campaign indicate that all of them were flying by the seat of their pants, and that a successful “yes” vote would have produced a great deal of chaos.
The book is timely in its way, because across the pond a similar referendum is taking place on September 18. At that time, citizens of Scotland will be asked “Should Scotland become an independent country?” According to Scottish people I have spoken to recently no one really knows what this means (although give them points for asking a clear question). The whole movement does seem to be the logical outcome of the rise of the EU – if your federal superstructure is “Europe,” what does it matter if you’re in the UK or not? In this way the referendum is not quite parallel with Quebec’s, although I confess that my sympathies are also with the status quo here. In general my feeling is that a part of a country does not have the right to make a unilateral declaration of independence. Scotland is part of the United Kingdom – why don’t all other citizens of that polity get to vote, since it’s their country too? (I enjoy saying this to my Confederate-sympathizing students to explain, in a different context, why the North Was Right.) If both parties agree to a divorce, only then can you legitimately go ahead with it, as the Czechs and Slovaks did in 1993.
I reviewed a book this summer that was, I regret to say, a salvo in the Scottish independence campaign. G.W.S. Barrow’s Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland (Amazon) was originally published in 1965 and has gone through four editions since; the fourth edition (2005) was just reissued in the Edinburgh Classic Editions series, “which publishes influential works from the archive in context for a contemporary audience.” The jacket blurb praising “Scotland’s national hero” by Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and architect of the independence campaign, suggests that someone on the “yes” side was hoping to capitalize on it. (Academic books usually feature blurbs by other academics.) Barrow himself sees Bruce as a great hero, possessing “a wonderful mixture of patience, sagacity and daring,” who took back Scotland and defeated the English in “one of the great heroic enterprises in history” after which he ruled as “one of the best of medieval kings, prudent, conscientious, vigorous and patriotic.” Now it could be that Bruce was all of these things. But even if he was, it should have precisely zero bearing on current Scottish political arrangements. Barrow was a supporter of Scottish independence, and in a lecture in 1980 entitled “The Extinction of Scotland” (pdf) he
protested in uncompromising and robust terms against the eradication of Scotland within the United Kingdom and what he saw as the complacent defeatism of the country’s upper and middle classes in going along with, even facilitating this process. In a memorable passage towards the end of the lecture, he took three utterances from modern members of these classes – ‘We are a very poor country and always have been’; ‘We have never been good at governing ourselves and managing our own affairs’; ‘What is going to happen to my pension?’ – and put them in the mouths of, respectively, James Douglas, Thomas Randolph and Neil Campbell, sitting in a cave above Loch Lomond in 1306 advising Robert Bruce on what to do next. ‘After this,’ Geoffrey wrote, ‘Robert Bruce is silent and thoughtful for a long time, before dictating a letter of abdication to the English king in which he admits that Edward I has been right all along.’
Barrow was an excellent historian, but I dislike how he uses his subject here. It’s no more sound to invoke Robert Bruce as a moral example for the present than to invoke some thoughtful, humane, and accomplished unionist as a moral example. It’s too bad Barrow didn’t study James Boswell, the Earl of Bute, or James Campbell of Lawers – then he could have given a speech about how the Union has been a great success and has allowed Scots to prosper!
Cynthia Eller, in The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (Amazon; Atlantic review), got it right: there is no evidence that paleolithic people ever worshipped “The Goddess” or had a matriarchal social organization. Such an idea is feminist creation science, and she demolished it because she was being a good historian – not because she isn’t a committed feminist otherwise. In The Myth of Nations (Amazon), Patrick Geary is right to point out that nothing resembling modern “nations” can be discerned in the great Völkerwanderung of Late Antiquity; Clovis (d. 511) was in no way the first king of France. Geary specifically wrote the book against nationalist politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen as a way of puncturing their claims, but the exact nature of Clovis and the early medieval polity he ruled ought to be a completely separate issue from the immigration policy of the present-day French Republic. One could believe that Clovis was the first king of “France,” and still oppose the Front National – or conversely, one could disbelieve in the antiquity of France, and still believe in restricting non-French immigration in the present.
It’s not as though the past has no bearing on the present, but we should not hold the past hostage to our concerns. Veritas valebit!