Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Semantics and Sovereignty, or Is There a Coherent Post-Sovereignty Stance? Evidence from Québec and Scotland

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Semantics and Sovereignty, or Is There a Coherent Post-Sovereignty Stance? Evidence from Québec and Scotland

Article excerpt

The problem of sovereignty

IN 1997, in anticipation of a further referendum in Québec, the Canadian federal government referred to the Supreme Court the question of whether Québec had the right to secede and under what conditions. The Court's solomonic judgement was that Québec did not have this right in law, but that if it wished to do so Canada would be obliged to negotiate in good faith. The principal conditions were that there should have been a referendum in which Quebeckers had declared their wish by a clear majority on a clear question. For a short while, both sovereignists and federalists claimed vindication, until it became clear that the Court had shrewdly avoided the substantive issue raised by its judgment, namely what is a clear question and what is a clear majority. In 1999 the federal government sought to fill the gap in its bill C22, the so-called clarity bill in which it made clear that the only question that it would recognise was one that posed the question of sovereignty as one of complete separation and that a clear majority would be something more than fifty per cent plus one of those voting. As a tactical manoeuvre, this put the sovereignists on the defensive and some of the more ebullient federalists were able, yet again, to pronounce the end of Québec separatism; such euphoria has in the past proved short-lived. Even as a tactical manoeuvre, the bill could be criticised for tying the federal government's own hands in advance and ruling out all manner of compromise solutions. More fundamentally, however, it ties a resolution of the Canada-Québec question to a form of national sovereignty and absolute independence that has rarely existed and, in modern conditions, is ever more elusive.

Sovereignty is a much debated and difficult concept. The term is used in at least two ways. One is a formal meaning, according to which a sovereign state recognises no superior authority in the global system, or competing authority within the state's territory. External sovereignty has often been traced, rather misleadingly, to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 following the Thirty Years' War; for most of Europe it was asserted only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The assertion of internal sovereignty was also a lengthy process, key steps including the Reformation, absolutism from the seventeenth century, and the French Revolution. It is often assumed that this formal sovereignty, being absolute, cannot be alienated. So countries joining the European Union, for example, are seen to share or pool their authority, but to retain the right to resume whatever powers they choose. Similarly, governments devolving powers, as in the UK, can take them back. The other meaning of sovereignty is substantive and refers to the ability of states to act autonomously. In this sense, sovereignty is a variable and can be shared, gained and lost over time. The formal claim to sovereignty can be contrasted with a reality of constraint and the needs of co-existence. In this sense, the sovereign state dates from the second half of the nineteenth century, when states extended their penetration into society, built bureaucratic apparatuses and assumed the power to regulate trade and the movement of people, and really came into its own after the Second World War.

Such is the weight of statist assumptions in modern social science that it is easy to forget that neither of these conceptions of sovereignty has ever completely held the field. State historiography has tended to present history teleologically as a progress to the integrated, sovereign nation-state, which itself is imbued with positive normative connotations. In regions with a history of imperial domination, and in minority nations within larger states, there is a competing history, stressing original rights, shared authority and diffused sovereignty.1 In Québec, the doctrine of the two founding nations reflects this concept of shared sovereignty and of the state as a compact. …

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