Friday, September 11, 2009

On nationalism and federalism

Via Matt Yglesias, I see that Lawrence Martin is in the Globe and Mail making the following interesting point.

Since its debut election campaign in 1993, the Bloc has never been beaten by a federalist party. Not in six elections. The demise of the Bloquistes is often predicted. It never happens. They are entrenched. In the next campaign, they are on course to rout the Liberals and Conservatives in Quebec again. [...]

The coddling of the BQ sees Canadian taxpayers subsidize the separatist party to the tune of millions of dollars to run its election campaigns. In that they have to campaign in only one province, the system absurdly favours it over federalist parties. The Bloc is allowed to participate in the English-language debates while running no candidates outside Quebec. Again, nothing is done. We wouldn't want to risk offending their delicate sensibilities.

But, for all its inroads, the Bloc has no reason to celebrate.

There's a great paradox at work here, a rollout of unintended consequences. The Bloc successes have bred failure. The better the BQ does, the further it gets from its goal of sovereignty. The separatists were closest to realizing that ambition in the early-to-mid-nineties, shortly after the Bloc arrived on the scene. Since that time, support for the sovereignty option, despite all the Bloc victories, has consistently been in decline.

The Bloc, it can be mischievously argued, has served the cause of a united Canada. Rarely over the past half-century has Canadian unity been as solid as it is today. It may well be that the Bloc, with its imposing fed-baiting presence in Ottawa, suffices for many Quebeckers as their instrument of sovereignty. It gives vent to pride, to autonomist passions. It wins concessions for the franchise.

If we were to take away the Bloc, if only Canada-minded federalist parties represented Quebeckers in Ottawa, a different scenario is easily imaginable. Conditions could well exist for a more spirited and fractious separatist movement.

Benefiting from the shrewd leadership of Gilles Duceppe and a smart, disciplined caucus, the Bloc has been able to address many of Quebec's grievances. But its steady progress now sees it scraping the barrel in search of meaningful injustices to fortify its underlying pathology (witness its current election advertising planning).

The idea that secessionist politics could be a stabilizing force in a multinational federation figures prominently in Wayne Norman's Negotiating Nationalism (see especially ch. 6) as well as in my own "Federalism, Liberalism, and the Separation of Loyalties," which adds to Norman's arguments an account of how the federal structure of the rest of constitution affects the outcomes of secessionist politics in one culturally distinct province. Three years after his book and two years after my article, I still think we're right, but it's a claim that makes Canadian audiences look at me funny. Interesting to see it start to go mainstream.


Anonymous said...

Just as an additional thought, the ongoing success of the BQ can arguably be understood as an unintended strengthening of intrastate federalism (the representation of provincial interests directly within
central government institutions). Having a provincially-based party means that a province's interests, are better represented. For Quebec, the BQ seems to have been able to compensate for Canada's weak senate.

Victor said...

Can you make an analogy with Hume's defense of an established church? An entrenched, subsidized separatist party will lead to an enfeebled, complacent nationalism.