I cannot say with certainty that Mr. Coyne writes to cause a significant reaction among his readers, but the result is still the same. This time, I couldn't resist reacting. Here is the twitter exchange:
@jnmeijer Good, yes. For full marks, why do I say that?I wasn't going to let him win by trying to correct his mistakes in 140 characters or less, therefore I replied:
— Andrew Coyne (@acoyne) September 23, 2014
@acoyne I will write up an answer in an article I will publish in the couple days. 140 chars too short, of course!So I'll cite the sections of Andrew Coyne's original article so that I can disprove as many of his points as possible, so as to disprove his entire argument.
— Jonathan Meijer (@jnmeijer) September 23, 2014
As I said on Twitter, in his article, Mr. Coyne tries to prove that the recent Scottish independence referendum, even with its clear question, was fundamentally undemocratic, especially with regards to the possibility that the example could be reflected in an eventual third referendum on Quebec's sovereignty. He divides his argument in five points, which I will decompose with the intention of refuting them.
First he says this:
Even to talk of holding another referendum in Canada, first, suggests a strange definition of democracy is at work, the same that has held us in its sway since the first, in which a yes, however tentative, is the final word, but a no, however many times it is repeated, only means a la prochaine — or, as Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader put it, “at this stage.” (To be fair, I don’t believe a yes would be final, either. I think it would only mark the start of the real referendum, the continuing battle for public opinion through the months of chaos that would follow. So the No side were very likely being as deceitful as the Yes in claiming that a yes was “forever.” At least I hope they were.)Let's first address the definition of "democracy", since his first sentence touches that point. The French language Wiktionary defines democracy as a political regime where the people as a whole holds sovereign power. This definition makes a referendum (where votes for and against the proposal are counted directly with no intermediary) an exercise more democratic than an vote to elect MPs in our first-past-the-post electoral system (and probably more democratic than in other electoral systems as well). A particular example of this happened in my federal riding of Gatineau: in 2004, Richard Nadeau lost despite his 40.27% of votes, while in 2008, he won with 29.15%: these are uncomfortable results but their legitimacy is not denied, and I don't recall anyone calling them undemocratic.
But even if we ignore the author's unusual definition of democracy, we would then have to ask just how a repeated independence referendum (of which simply its mention cost the Parti Québécois the last general provincial election) isn't democratic. And, strictly speaking, how is independence final? More than one province joined the confederation since 1867, and Newfoundland had a referendum in 1948 to this very effect. And even if the result is final due to political reality, how is that not democratic? The author's first point falls in its entirety.
His second point touches the question's clarity, an issue which came back often since the 1995 Quebec referendum. I think the federalists are still particularly bitter about this.
Second, the question, much lauded though it was here for its clarity — “Should Scotland be an independent country?” — only appears so in light of the hilariously complex and misleading questions employed in our own triumphs of democracy. Any expert in public opinion polling could tell you it’s a slanted question: It plainly invites a yes. A fair question would present the two options, equally: Should Scotland become an independent country, or should it remain a part of the United Kingdom?To compare a referendum question (for which each side has months or years to prepare) to a telephone survey question to which one is not prepared, is not very honest! Especially in the case of a "yes" or "no" question, for which both camps have the opportunity to form and prepare information packages and solicitation teams, etc. More importantly, the electors have the chance to study all the materials to make an informed choice.
But even if we ignore that detail, to question the Scottish referendum question's clarity after the big issue of Quebec's referendum question, that's rich, especially considering the hardline federalists (to which Andrew Coyne is really starting to resemble) have spent so much time criticizing the Quebec question for its lack of clarity. And even if clarity weren't an issue, the result of any independence vote would be complicated; nothing of that sort is ever simple, but that doesn't mean that the people can't make a decision and take responsibility for it. The author's second point falls too.
In his third point, the author questions the legitimacy of a simple majority (50%+1):
Third, merely because the British prime minister was foolish enough to agree to 50 per cent plus one of the vote as sufficient mandate to begin negotiations on the breakup of the kingdom — assuming he was being sincere, and assuming the negotiations did not collapse and assuming a whole lot else that would probably not be the case — it does not follow that Canada is now obliged to accept that as a precedent.
The arguments that led the Supreme Court to require a clear majority as one of the conditions, alongside a clear question, of the (entirely made up) duty to negotiate on the part of the rest of Canada (whoever that is, constitutionally), still hold. The Clarity Act, which slyly turned this on its head — from requiring negotiations in the event of a clear majority, to banning negotiations without it — is still the law of the land. And, as is increasingly widely acknowledged in Quebec, such a narrow and divisive majority could not possibly be sufficient to launch the province on such a perilous adventure. (Opinion polls in the province point to 60 per cent as a bare minimum, with a substantial number preferring 75 per cent.)Obviously, whenever a country on the road to being reduced realizes the real possibility that the "yes" side of an independence referendum may win, the opponents will do all they can to prevent it from happening. That's why the hardline federalists will insist to change the rules, for example demanding a minimum "yes" vote of 60% or 75%, and so on. Just like I said earlier, it's interesting to see those federalists insist for a minimum higher than 50% while it'd be perfectly democratic if their favourite party wins a majority of House of Commons seats without even getting close to a 50% share of the votes: in 1997, the Jean Chrétien Liberals got 155 of 301 seats (51.50%) with only 38.46% of the votes; in 1993, the discrepancy was even higher: they got 177 of 295 seats (60%) with 41.24% of the votes. Will Mr. Coyne be the first to question the legitimacy of a majority Liberal government under Justin Trudeau if he wins with only 40% of the votes rather than 60% or 75%?
It's in his fourth point that the author dares say that a fundamentally democratic exercise (as I pointed out earlier) with a clear question is somehow not democratic:
But — point four — even a clearer question, and even with a clear majority, it still wouldn’t alter the fundamentally undemocratic premise of the enterprise: namely, that the fate of the whole country may be decided by the vote of a small minority. Had the Yes carried the day in Scotland, it would have been with the support of perhaps 1.8 million out of the United Kingdom’s 64 million citizens. The rest were forced to watch, helplessly, as their own futures hung in the balance.
We have all been seduced by the formalities — the holding of a vote, with ballot boxes and scrutineers and the rest — into thinking these affairs are actually based on some sort of democratic principle. But just because you hold a vote on something doesn’t make it democratic, not in any legitimate sense. For example, you can’t vote to help yourself to something that isn’t yours, and you can’t vote to decide the fates of others, not party to the vote.So it's not democratic because the rest of the country doesn't agree? That argument doesn't work because Canada isn't a unitary state like Ireland and others. We have, in theory, a confederation where federal powers are limited. Contrary to other provinces, Quebec has managed to keep some of those powers to itself, as guaranteed by the constitution. The union of the provinces must be recognized as voluntary for the benefits it provides to all, and to ensure its actual legitimacy. Instead, we see that many federalists think that the federal government is and should be a strong central power acting in a decisive manner to discipline its rebellious children. (Gee, this attitude is starting to look like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who had to impose his strong rule to allow his Sunni minority to control a Shia majority country!)
The author continues:
Yet that is precisely what separatists in Canada and the U.K. have attempted to maintain: that they could vote, not to “leave” the country, as it is sometimes put, but to take a part of the country with them, and that the rest of the country, including the vast majority of its citizens, had no choice but to accept whatever the minority decreed. This may be called many things, but democratic isn’t one of them. If it’s democracy we’re interested in, then any decision to break up the country should be for all of the country to vote on, not just a part of it.And that's where we can start to see that gem of Orange Order ideology hated by so many: I read that the author would prefer that Quebeckers "return to France" (that's me quoting innumerable comments I read in national online English-language media in Canada) rather than have us as neighbours. Without even having to mention that so many of us aren't even French (I myself spent the first 21 years of my life as a Franco-Ontarian, and my parents immigrated 34 years ago from elsewhere than France), one can feel the traditional and now anachronistic English Protestant feeling of supremacy imposed on subjugated peoples for centuries. (Note that even if it were Orange Order sympathizers who were treating the Catholic Irish violently in Ontario during the 19th century, and that they managed among other things to get rid of the St. Patrick's day parade in Toronto for many years despite the heavy demographic weight of the Irish, I understand that the large majority of people of English descent and Protestant religious affiliation do not express such hatred.)
But the legal reality is simple: Quebec is presently a province, which holds and controls most of its territory, and while Canada is divisible in the case of an provincial independence referendum, Quebec itself is not divisible in the same way (without going through a constitutional reform which would be useless in the case of a successful independence referendum). The author's fourth point is therefore also invalid.
(The author's fifth point only applies to the United Kingdom's very particular constitutional situation, and therefore has no bearing on the value of the author's argument in the Canadian context.)
In conclusion, as I was able to counter each of his points, it's clear that Andrew Coyne was expressing his personal feelings about the Scottish referendum and about a possible third Quebec referendum rather than the political constitutional reality.
When he says a referendum with a clear question is not democratic, he's simply wrong.