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What nationalists could learn from Quebec Who is willing to reclaim patriotism?

Pro-independence Quebeckers on St Jean Baptiste Day (Photo by Steve Liss/Getty Images)

Pro-independence Quebeckers on St Jean Baptiste Day (Photo by Steve Liss/Getty Images)


June 24, 2024   5 mins

Weeks before the present election campaign began, Keir Starmer raised eyebrows when he called for Labour candidates to “fly the flag” on St George’s Day, in an attempt to displace the Tories as the party of patriotism. But in truth, British patriotism is no longer the potent force it once was. For all the vision and ambition with which both the Brexit and Scottish independence movements announced themselves, these national revivals are faltering. 

Come 4 July, the Scottish Nationalists are in danger of losing badly, having become bound up with a militant current of minoritarian social liberalism which undermines the collective and civic basis of classical nationalism, as it has historically existed on the Left. Meanwhile, the national project of the Brexiteers, which lives on the Right, fell short of its own lofty expectations: its architects in the Conservative Party (set to fare even worse than the SNP) proved unable to deliver on their promise of a Britain secure from the ravages of economic and cultural globalisation. 

In short, Britons seem unable to do nationalism with any success or conviction, that is, to put it into practice beyond its merely performative aspects. So, as the election day approaches, where can the British political establishment look to form a coherent nation-based system?

There is, one place that anyone aspiring to a functional nationalism, in Britain or elsewhere, can take notes from: a forgotten corner of its former empire, where the people happen to do a decent job of maintaining themselves both as a nation and a state, even if it isn’t actually a state in the Westphalian sense. I’m talking about Quebec, a Canadian province that is also a nation unto itself, and one with its own fraught history of holding referendums. Today is Quebec’s own FĂȘte nationale: Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. And what better occasion to survey the trajectory of nationalism there?

The animating fact of Quebec politics and history is that of survivance, the desire of its people to survive as a distinct society of Francophones in the midst of an overwhelmingly Anglophone continent. Though Quebec’s identity is rooted in the French language and descends from a heritage that stretches back to New France, modern Quebec nationalism was forged in the Fifties and Sixties, in a time of immense social change known as la RĂ©volution Tranquille (The Quiet Revolution). It saw the conservative and pro-clerical regime of Maurice Duplessis replaced by the reforming government of Jean Lesage, which nationalised utilities and took over education and welfare services from the Catholic Church; these measures established the modern contemporary incarnation of l’etat quĂ©bĂ©cois or the Quebec state, looked to by its people as the supreme institutional expression of the Quebecois nation.

In the Seventies, desires arose among both the political-intellectual elite and the broad populace to make that Quebec state sovereign: their leader was journalist-turned-Lesage cabinet minister RenĂ© LĂ©vesque, who executed the utilities nationalisation scheme. His Parti QuĂ©bĂ©cois (PQ) would lead the push for independence from Canada with the referendum of 1980; though it was rejected by a 60-40 margin, LĂ©vesque’s government nonetheless largely shaped the character of Quebec nationalism for decades to come: Left-wing, pro-union, secularist, feminist, environmentalist, and aligned with global anti-colonial currents. It was under LĂ©vesque as well that Quebec passed legislation to enshrine French as its official language, cementing the Quebec state’s role as defender of the national character. 

La RĂ©volution Tranquille, however, also spawned a divergent and opposing tradition: federalism, which may be understood formally to mean an acceptance of continued membership in the Canadian federation. But in Quebec, it also has deeper philosophical underpinnings: a kind of radical emancipatory individualist liberalism developed in the pages of the Duplessis-era dissident journal CitĂ© Libre. Its great champion was Pierre Trudeau, who as prime minister of Canada prevailed in the 1980 referendum, but whose subsequent actions sowed the seeds of the knife-edge second referendum of 1995, when Quebec nearly seceded, had it not been for a 54,288-vote margin (1.16%) in favour of “Non”. 

For 40 years, Quebec politics was a struggle between the two poles, nationalist-sovereigntist and federalist, with “soft” or semi-nationalist compromises sometimes gaining ground. By the 2010s, however, something different was happening, a depolarisation of the old sovereignty debate and the emergence of a new alternative: firmly nationalist but agnostic or neutral on independence. Such a stance meant that the Coalition Avenir QuĂ©bec (CAQ) could attract both soft nationalists and sovereigntists, amounting to a majority of the Francophone electorate. Indeed, this was the formula that its founder and leader François Legault used to win power in the elections of 2018 and 2022.

The CAQ has pledged to leave behind the quest for independence, treating it as a settled affair (Legault was a former PQ minister). But it has never hesitated to brandish its nationalist credentials in other ways, namely its aggressive agendas on language, culture, and migration: these can be discerned in a bevy of new regulations expanding French-language requirements for businesses, immigrants and English universities, in addition to raising the latter’s tuition costs. Legault has also routinely squared off with Justin Trudeau’s federal government, pressuring it to act more decisively in halting the flow of refugees through Quebec’s borders, as well as proposing a referendum — not on independence — but on strengthening immigration powers. 

Though what is significant from a historical point of view is what the CAQ represents: the re-emergence of Right-wing nationalism as a dominant force. Indeed, the intellectual implications of this tendency are only now being fleshed out by a new generation of thinkers, led by the likes of Étienne-Alexandre Beauregard, Legault’s 23-year-old speechwriter, who published a treatise Le Retour des Bleus (“Return of the Blues”) attempting to revive the conservative or bleu strain of Quebec nationalism; this would entail a rehabilitation of figures such as Duplessis, whose legacy remains anathema to the largely progressive sovereigntist movement.

Just as interesting is the recent resurgence of the PQ as the chief opposition to Legault’s CAQ. After having been written off as a dying Boomer-era artefact, the sovereigntist party has risen in the polls under an energetic young leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, who has threatened to hold a third referendum on independence. However, tough support for the PQ has not actually translated into support for the idea of sovereignty, suggesting that this boost in the PQ’s fortunes has more to do with voicing dissatisfaction with Legault than with Quebecers wanting to revisit the issue. 

All of which means that Quebec politics now appears to be a contest between two vigorous but antagonistic nationalisms; a fact highlighted by the decline of the federalist Quebec Liberals. Though the tension is genuine, these two variants of nationalism are nonetheless united both in their recognition of the Quebec nation as a civic-collective entity, as illustrated by their common resistance to the minoritarian social liberalism that’s taken hold in the rest of Canada; and in their shared readiness to deploy the powers of the Quebec state as a means of safeguarding that nation (leaving aside whether that state should be sovereign), as shown by the activist policies of the nationalist parties, Left and Right. As a result, for instance, Quebec’s language regime may seem absurd or even vindictive to outsiders and non-Francophones, but it starts to make a bit more sense when viewed as part of a larger historical project, that of ensuring national survivance. 

“Quebec politics now appears to be a contest between two vigorous but antagonistic nationalisms.”

These linguistic and cultural differences aside, we can glean the operative principle for those — in Britain, America or Anglo-Canada or elsewhere — who find themselves drawn to the nationalist persuasion after years of hyper-globalisation: the nation-state only makes sense if both its constituent terms are taken seriously. 

For those on the Left, reclaiming the nation requires promoting unifying bonds and symbols of nationhood over and above the subaltern identity politics that’s become fashionable across the West, for the nation is ultimately what legitimates the state. For the Right, meanwhile, a constructive nationalism in the post-Brexit era will have to rest on restoring the state and its capacity to act in defence of the nation, most of all with respect to borders and rebuilding industry. It will involve a rejection of that odious and long descredited combination of free market-ism and flag waving that’s been the standard of the Anglo-Saxon Right for decades.

For as many a QuĂ©bĂ©cois can attest, without a powerful state to act on your behalf in a hostile world, any nation, no matter how historically great, is liable to be reduced to, in David Starkey’s phrase, a “feeble little country.”


Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.
1TrueCuencoism

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James P
James P
25 days ago

As a former Quebecois (anglophone, bilingual, and still separatist) who never goes back, the big miss in this article is that the reason Quebec hasn’t left Canada is that it would be like a calf leaving the cow. It ain’t gonna happen. Too many billions of dollars are funnelled into the province by the rest of the country as a result of certain characteristics of our Canadian electoral system. It’s a raw deal for the rest of us. Quebec controls the federal government (Turdo ain’t from Saskatoon) and it’s influence on other provinces economic activity is devastating (see supply management in agriculture, dairy quotas, and oil & gas pipeline restrictions). It looks good at the moment but it won’t last fifty years. The nationalism at the centre of this article is a parasite on the larger nation, and not a healthy one.

Arthur King
Arthur King
24 days ago
Reply to  James P

Quebecers are a nation of thieves.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
24 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

And you are?

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
24 days ago
Reply to  James P

It wont last two years is the hope.

Molly McDougall
Molly McDougall
23 days ago
Reply to  James P

I wonder who the down voters are – as a resident of Alberta, the next time Quebec holds a referendum to leave Canada, we want to vote for them to leave
.

Arthur King
Arthur King
19 days ago

I suspect it is Europeans who have no clue how corrupt Quebers are in their exploitation and abuse of Canada.

Pip G
Pip G
24 days ago

This article is fascinating: in my ignorance I did not know the nature of the politic in Q. James P (below) suggests large inward subsidies from other States, which could engender resentment. However, Q seems to have dropped complete independence and has not adopted extreme social liberalism of the type in Scotland.
Are there any lessons for the UK? Is it practical to devolve to England, NI, S & W when England is so much larger and the smaller parts are economically dependent? More please Michael Quenco.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
24 days ago
Reply to  Pip G

Politics in Quebec is the same as big government politics everywhere.
Get what you want and get somebody else to pay for it.
Time to snip off the old family(my mothers family farm was the planes of Abraham).

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
24 days ago

When I lived in Quebec the language police were brutally vindictive, the Francophone Quebecois were embarrassed that the 18th century French they spoke was derided by real French speakers, and the rest of Canada took the attitude that ‘if they won’t jump, we should give them a push’, because they could then ditch the unnecessary and burdensome dual language requirements, among many other things.

Arthur King
Arthur King
24 days ago

Many long for Quebec to leave Canada. Their oversized power in the federal government is quasi-apartide. The French are over represented in Parliament, courts, and other Canadian institutions. The exploit the resent of Canada through transfer payments. They exploit their position in Canada and increasingly the rest of Canada wants them gone.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
24 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

I want a referendum to give them the boot.

Arthur King
Arthur King
19 days ago
Reply to  Bret Larson

Lots of Canadians will throw “good riddance” parties when this parasitic province is gone. The billions they have exploited from the rest of Canada through transfer payments, agricultural board supply restrictions, and leveraging their position to decode federal elections is criminal.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
24 days ago

Great confusion here from the writer, Michael Cuenco.
He seems to have missed the ongoing battle for our Country from globalism and the WEF
We will know a lot more come July 5th 2024, but its looking like nationalism is alive and well in the UK.
#DisruptLibLabConSNP .. #theSocialistUniParty
#DisruptGE2024
#Vote @Reform_UK

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
23 days ago

I’m impressed against my will by this author. Thank you, Michael, for this excellent piece of writing. I’m more knowledgeable now about an area of the world of which I knew relatively little, and I feel smarter having been a beneficiary of your well-chosen words.

Terry Davies
Terry Davies
22 days ago

An interesting article which has brought out (through the comments) a number of competing arguments. So many aspects to a state of affairs which I know so little about! Fascinating!

John Hughes
John Hughes
20 days ago

John Wilson Foster, an academic originally from Northern Ireland who lives and works in Vancouver, has identified the fact that the virtue-signalling trend in Anglo Canada, personified if not led by Justin Trudeau, does not run in Quebec. His April 2022 article while mainly about the Irish-British relationship compares that with that between Quebec and Canada. See the article here:
https://www.briefingsforbritain.co.uk/chits-from-matron-select-pampered-nationalisms/
(Briefings for Britain 16 April 2022)
Foster concludes his article as follows: “For his part, Justin Trudeau or his successor is likely to learn the same lesson about La Belle Province if the anti-British Decolonisation project, now up and running in British Columbia, spreads to the Rest of Canada but stopping, of course, at the Quebec border since there will be zero desire across it to cancel the historical French founding and maturing.”
So Quebec’s nationalism and its concept of a distinct society in North America, long a source of concern and hand-wringing by writers and politicians in the RoC, may turn out to be what saves Canada from its current cultural trend into a country with no national consciousness.