IT has been eight years since the last independence referendum. The issue continues to dominate the political discussion, with the leading pro-independence party in power, enjoying the support of more than 40% of the population and a similar proportion of voters backing their flagship policy. Far fewer want another referendum soon, but the pro-independence head of government is promising one.

Welcome to Québec in March 2003. Having promised a referendum “in 1000 days”, weeks later, the governing Parti Québécois (PQ) fell to their worst defeat in three decades. They lost 31 of their 76 seats as the federalist Parti libéral du Québec (PLQ) surged to a majority in the Québécois Assemblée nationale.

Secessionist political parties that achieve the democratic political success of the PQ or the SNP are rare in the liberal democratic West. Rarer are those that secure referendums on secession. Rarer still are those that achieve such strength, secure a democratic vote, and lose – twice, in the Québécois case.

As the SNP throws what may be the last roll of the dice, it is natural that we spend so much time discussing the process and what Scotland might look like should the independence movement succeed.

But what if they fail?

Québec offers a rare case study on what can happen to the politics of a stateless democratic nation in the wake of an unsuccessful secessionist movement.

The decline of the PQ and the Québécois secessionist movement began in 1998, three years after losing the 1995 referendum by barely 1% of the vote. The PQ held on to their majority, but beneath the surface, the electorate had already begun to realign.

Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), a Québécois nationalist party which championed a stronger Québec government within a fully federal Canada, almost doubled its vote primarily by siphoning votes from the PQ.

Between 1998 and 2003, referendum fatigue began to set in, and support for secession waned. The ADQ took four PQ seats in a series of 2002 by-elections and at one point led the polls for the 2003 election.

The ADQ ultimately failed to gain seats in 2003 despite increasing their vote share further. But by disproportionately taking votes from the PQ, they transformed many safe seats into three-way contests won by the PLQ, resulting in the first federalist majority in nearly a decade. 2003 marked a turning point for Québec as its two-party system, which had persisted for a quarter of a century, began to unravel. The ADQ overtook the PQ in 2007, only for those advances to be reversed a year later. The PQ then returned to power as a minority government in 2012, lasting just eighteen months before calling a snap election in which their leader, Premier of Québec Pauline Marois, lost her seat.

In the background, Québecois nationalism was completing its turn from secessionism to the softer position of the ADQ. In 2011, former PQ cabinet minister François Legault launched Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a nationalist but explicitly anti-referendum party which holds that the independence debate had hampered Québec’s social and economic progress.

Several former and current PQ and ADQ politicians defected to the CAQ, and the ADQ formally merged into the CAQ in 2012. In 2018, it won a majority in the Québécois Assemblée nationale, relegating the PQ to just 7 seats. On its nationalist but anti-independence platform, the CAQ is currently projected to win as many as 106 of the Assemblée nationale’s 125 seats in this October’s elections.

All governments struggle to hold on to power if their voters lose faith in their ability to deliver solutions to the nation’s challenges. The SNP’s voter coalition is held together by the belief that an independent Scottish government would better govern in the Scottish people’s interests than Westminster. That independence is the first step to solving the nation’s socio-economic difficulties and creating a better, fairer society.

In the face of Westminster intransigence, an unfavourable Supreme Court decision, and failure to secure a majority pro-independece vote at a general election, what happens if the pro-independence voter coalition begins to lose faith in the SNP’s ability to deliver independence?

What happens if they are presented with a nationalist alternative that will stand up to Westminster but rejects the idea that independence is necessary to create a more just society?

Scottish politics feels unusually static, but nothing lasts forever. As the Québécois experience can teach us, the decline of an independence movement can be gradual and begin slowly, almost entirely outwith our perception of politics. But when it culminates, it can do so suddenly and with a dramatic shift in the political landscape.

How long until Scotland has its own François Legault, a Scots CAQ? Only time will tell, but it may be sooner than we expect.

Mark McGeoghegan is a writer and Postgraduate Researcher (PhD Politics & International Relations) at the University of Glasgow