I HAVE friends who regularly march under one banner. They invariably return buoyed by the experience, surer than ever that independence is just around the corner. Hardly surprising, having spent the day with thousands of others of the same persuasion. Sure, it’s impressive, but they’re talking to the converted. What’s being done to win over the waverers whose support will be essential in a future referendum? When the undecided survey the current unedifying internal mix of squabbling, manoeuvring and personal grudges, they’re entitled to ask, “What’s going on here?”

The “once in a generation” tag attached to the 2014 referendum was always going to detach. As Harold Macmillan put it, “Events, dear boy, events,” will lead to a rerun sooner or later. Brexit, the pandemic and perceived incompetence and hostility at Westminster, are sufficiently significant events for the question to be asked again. The stakes will be incredibly high for unionists and nationalists alike. A prime minister who has lost most things, including credibility and grasp of reality will not wish to lose the Union.

Equally, a second referendum spells danger for nationalists. As Oscar Wilde nearly said, “To lose one referendum may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Both camps can learn from the ups and downs of separatism in Quebec. Although secession from Canada was heavily defeated in 1980, the rematch in 1995 was much closer. The demand for separation failing by less than 1%. Far from kicking on, the separatist cause declined at provincial and federal levels. The Bloc Quebecois (BQ) was nearly wiped out in 2015’s federal elections. Against the odds, it surged back in 2019, winning 32 seats in the House of Commons, effectively removing prime minister Justin Trudeau’s parliamentary majority.

The resurgence wasn’t necessarily down to renewed support for separatism. Dissatisfaction with Ottawa played a major part. Voting for BQ was a way to give the federal government a kicking. Quebeckers also felt their cultural identity and political institutions were insufficiently recognised and respected. Anything sound familiar?

Recent opinion polls suggest that, in Quebec as in Scotland, there are a great many waverers. Dissatisfaction with failing governments in Ottawa and London could well be the telling factor in winning over the undecided. A post-Brexit assault on devolution and a power grab by Westminster will play badly in Scotland, fuelling demands for independence. On the other hand, unionists can also learn from Quebec. In 2015’s federal elections non-secessionist parties promoted tactical voting, often putting up single candidates in marginal constituencies. That could be a high-risk strategy in Scotland but, in extremis, it might just be worth grasping the thistle.

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