A second Brexit referendum has a surprising precedent: Quebec’s secession vote

Chrétien had a back-up plan.
Chrétien had a back-up plan.
Image: Reuters/Shaun Best
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On Oct. 30, 1995, Quebec held a vote on whether to become independent from Canada. The final tally, a nail-biting 50.58% for No against 49.42% for Yes, saw federalists narrowly win in a poll that had for months captivated not just Quebec residents, but most of the country.

But what if it had gone the other way?

Quebec politicians who backed the “Yes” vote—most prominently leaders of the separatist Bloc Québécois—had far from any real consensus on what it would mean. Some wanted to begin outright secession, while others wanted to use a Yes vote as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Canada’s federal government.

“Neither side had a plan for what they would do, particularly if there was a Yes vote,” says Bob Plamondon, a Canadian author and historian. “They really had no idea what would be the consequences.”

Sound familiar? The UK’s 2016 referendum on whether to remain part of the EU, though not quite as razor close as Quebec’s 1995 vote, went 51.89% Leave to 48.11% Remain. It was hardly a landslide, and the two years since have been spent quarreling over the terms of that exit. Now that those terms have been laid out, calls for a second referendum are mounting. For Quebec’s 1995 referendum, one had been planned, in secret, from the outset.

Jean Chrétien, Canada’s prime minister at the time of the Quebec secession vote, raised the stakes ahead of the vote and said Yes meant outright separation. But privately, he had a plan in case the vote went Yes—revealed last year by Plamondon in his book The Shawinigan Fox—to argue the referendum’s terms were unclear.

Chrétien was unwilling to accept Quebec’s secession over a potentially narrow majority, according to Plamondon. If the vote had went the other way, Chrétien planned within a month to hold a second referendum to ask Quebecers directly and unambiguously if they wanted to separate from Canada. He also planned to raise the Yes threshold to make it harder to pass.

What Chrétien seemed to understand way back in 1995, is that public opinion is hardly fixed. Opinion polls routinely show this.

For two years, the UK has been consumed by Brexit as the terms have been hashed out. May’s proposal agreement negotiated with the EU, released a few weeks ago, has been met with derision, and is unlikely to get through the UK parliament. After delaying a vote on it, and surviving a resulting leadership challenge, May is scrambling to make adjustments to the deal so a vote can take place before Jan. 21.

After the European Court of Justice ruled this week that the UK can unilaterally revoke Brexit, and as consequences of departing the bloc have become more clear, the prospect of a second referendum has grown. A Dec. 10 YouGov survey found that 43% of respondents said they would be either delighted, pleased, or relieved if the UK canceled Brexit. That’s more than the 38% who said they would feel either disappointed, angry, or betrayed of such an outcome.

Does that mean there should be a second referendum? There’s obvious and major differences between Quebec’s vote and the referendum on EU membership, not least that Canada’s prime minister was staunchly opposed to separatism. But if the Quebec analogy is any (rough) guide, Chrétien would probably say a slight majority in favor of an unclear arrangement is hardly a rock-solid mandate.