With all the speculation about what impact a large contingent of SNP MPs (or other regionally-based minor parties like the DUP) might have at Westminster after 7 May, it is worth looking at experience in some other countries. This situation may not be something the UK is used to, though it was key to how British politics worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century once the Parnell/Redmond Irish Party became the dominant electoral party in Ireland. There are more recent parallels from two other parliamentary systems with minority nationalities: Canada (and the Bloc Québecois), and Spain, particularly with Convergència i Unió but also other parties from Catalonia, and indeed the Basque Country and Galicia.
To make sense of what has happened in Canada, it’s necessary to know a bit how Canadian politics works. Federal and provincial party organisations are quite separate there, except for the New Democrats. The main party of Quebec ‘sovereignism’*, the Parti Québecois, has limited itself to Quebec provincial elections (as has the federalist Parti Libéral du Québec). Its counterpart for federal elections, the Bloc Québecois, was established in 1991, between the 1980 and 1995 referendums and after the failure of the Meech Lake process that was expected in Quebec to lead to a renewed form of federalism including a special status for Quebec. Its first leader, Lucien Bouchard, had been a minister in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet and an advocate for the Meech Lake deal. The Bloc was highly successful in its first election in 1993, winning 54 of 75 Quebec seats, and with the implosion of the Progressive Conservative Party it found itself forming the official opposition to the Liberals in the 1993-97 Parliament. It remained the dominant player in Quebec federal politics until 2011, winning over 40 seats in each election (and usually over 50) except for 2000, when it won 38.
In reality, though, the Bloc’s influence on federal politics has been limited. Although established to provide a ‘voice for Quebec’ in the federal Parliament, it was unable to hinder the passage of the Clarity Act on the terms of a future independence referendum in 2000-2001, the most important constitutional issue since it was established. Nor has it been able to enter government, or even influence the composition of a federal government. Perhaps the high point of its potential influence indicated those limits; the suggestion in 2008 of assembling an anti-Conservative government involving the Liberals, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Bloc to oust the minority Conservative government failed, with a strong hostile reaction to the Bloc’s involvement in particular. (A timely prorogation of Parliament enabled the Prime Minister to avoid an immediate crisis but has remained controversial ever since.) The line taken will be familiar to those who have seen the Conservatives in Britain seek to stigmatise the SNP: ‘how can you let a party that wants to break up the country govern it?’ Even at the high point of its numerical influence in Parliament, and despite its popularity in Quebec the Bloc’s reputation meant it could not take an active part in Canadian federal politics. To a large degree, that simply cut Quebec out of federal electoral politics.
This political isolation may help explain that the Bloc’s dramatic fall in the 2011 election, which meant it even lost recognition as an official party group in Parliament. Most of the Bloc’s vote appears to have gone to the NDP, which shares the Bloc’s left-of-centre policy agenda but is traditionally an advocate of a strong federal government rather than provincial autonomy. The NDP polled strongly elsewhere as well, but 59 of its 103 seats are from Quebec. It has been the official opposition since 2011. Moreover, the Parti Québécois did very badly in provincial elections in 2014, leading many to conclude that Quebec sovereignism is in terminal decline.
(* Calling someone ‘nationalist’ in Quebec is not very helpful; practically all Francophones are nationalists to some degree. The key distinction is between ‘sovereignists’, who seek a separate state for Quebec, and ‘federalists’ who include those who think that Quebec’s interests can be best served as part of Canada, perhaps with special status and wider powers than other provinces.)
In Spain, several governments have depended on the support of the minority nationalist parties to form a majority. These include Felipe Gonzalez’s fourth Socialist (PSOE) government elected in 1993, the conservative Partido Popular (PP) government of José Maria Aznar between 1996 and 2000, and José Zapatero’s two PSOE governments between 2004-08 and 2008-11. It has been a regular feature of Spanish politics to have a minority central government relying on minority nationalist parties for support.
Aznar had a relatively straightforward relationship with Convergència i Unió (CiU), the largest of the Catalan nationalist parties and a party of the moderate right. CiU supported the Aznar government in return for a number of concessions: the devolution of policing and prisons, some rationalisation of the financial framework, and influence with respect to a number of central state bodies, including financial regulators and the Constitutional Court to which a Catalan judge was nominated for the first time.
Things got more complex under Zapatero . His governments relied on the support of other left-wing parties, including the secessionist-nationalist Catalan party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) (but not CiU) for its initial approval in a confidence vote. After that, it had to assemble majorities measure by measure. In 2005, the Catalan socialist government sought a new Statute of Autonomy, extending the powers of the Catalan parliament and government yet further. Despite clear support in the Catalan parliament, getting this through the Spanish Parliament was more complex and the Catalan and Spanish socialists did not have enough votes. So the statute’s terms were renegotiated, between Zapatero as the Spanish prime minister and Artur Mas, leader of CiU and of the opposition in Catalonia. Although the Catalan government had initiated the process, it was taken over by the central state, and driven through by an accord between a seeker of greater autonomy for Catalonia who had the votes the central government needed in the Congress of Deputies, bypassing the Catalan government and its premier, who was also the prime minister’s regional political ally.
In the Congress of Deputies (the lower house of the Spanish Parliament), the new statute passed with opposition only from the PP and ERC; it picked up ERC support in the Senate and was passed in May 2006 and subsequently endorsed by a strong (nearly 3:1) majority in a Catalan referendum. But then it went wrong; the revised Statute of Autonomy was referred to the Constitutional Court, which finally in 2010 ruled that most of the revised Statute was contrary to the Spanish Constitution – a rejection which has led to the current debates about a referendum or other process leading to Catalan secession from Spain, and the transformation of CiU from being an autonomy-seeking party to one seeking independence.
Lessons for the UK ?
It’s not easy to draw direct lessons from experiences in Canada or Spain, but a few do emerge. First, if parties want to exercise influence at the centre, they need to be able to show that they are committed to the state as a whole. Otherwise, they risk simply being excluded from all key decisions and processes. The Bloc Québecois’s influence in Canada was always very limited, and it could never exercise much sway on key decisions that mattered to it. By contrast, CiU was effective in Spain because it was happy to commit itself to Catalan autonomy within Spain; its position has been much more marginal since it shifted to embrace independence, and the same applies to ERC.
Second, despite that, it is in the interest of the state as whole, and state-wide parties, to find ways to engage with minority nationalist parties. Their voters are as entitled to representation in a state-wide parliament as anyone. The price of support for the Bloc among Quebec voters was that they were disengaged from federal politics, and the only real focus for Quebec politics was what happened in Quebec city (and dealings between the Quebec and federal governments). That has had a detrimental effect on Canadian democracy in general, and how Quebec relates to the rest of Canada more generally. It’s yet to be seen whether the NDP’s emergence instead changes that, but it is worth emphasising how long that disengagement had lasted – by 2011, not only was the Quebec sovereignist movement in serious trouble, but it was clear that 20 years of the Bloc had produced no tangible gains. In Spain, parliamentary arithmetic made the Catalan parties and particularly CiU key players. They were willing and able to engage with the central state, and succeeded until an external actor (the Constitutional Court) made that engagement irrelevant. A further conclusion follows: vetoing an agreement that commands broad support in a sub-state nation is a highly perilous course for any actor at central level to take.
Third, this is a complicated and sophisticated sort of politics. It does not work well if parties resort to simplistic sloganising and posturing or seeking short-term partisan advantage, particularly if their objective is to maintain the integrity of the state. Cool and wise heads will be at premium if, as is likely, 7 May produces a messy outcome.