The biggest mistake for the Unionists is taking things for granted and not having a strong case for the union.
Canadians have a love-hate relationship with referendums. Sometimes they are seen as a big loss to the ‘establishment" , like the 1992 constitutional referendum which have not passed even if every mainstream political group was for it, or sometimes they are seen as a sort of democratic miracle, as in a Monday in October 1995, where the turnout in the Quebec independence referendum was close to 94% when regular turnout in general elections in Quebec is usually in the 70-ish%.
There was two referendums in Quebec in regard to secession, in 1980, and in 1995 where the no won in a very close race. Polls in the last days were clear about giving a victory to the yes, but undecided’s came back to the no camp at the last minute.
But the way the Scottish referendum had been managed have been very British, very fair play. Unlike the two referendums in Quebec, the question is clear and accepted by the Electoral Commission and the date had been chosen by both sides. In Quebec, both the federal government and the government of Quebec were in conflict, even as the federal prime minister at the time (Jean Chrétien) was a French-Canadian representing a constituency in rural Quebec. This would be like if David Cameron was MP in a Scottish constituency.
In Quebec, the question in both referendums with either too long (like in 1980) or not clear enough (like in 1995), considering that a question like the one asked in the Scottish referendum would have been voted yes by about 40% of the electorate according to polls.
Indeed, the situation in Quebec is similar to Scotland, both have an economy which public funding take a big part of the economy. Both have some natural resources (Quebec have mining and hydroelectricity), but both have big challenges. Quebec have a very high debt, all this with a workforce which is becoming the oldest in North America and a public sector which is difficult to reform. Healthcare spending is up and the NHS-type system have difficulty since decades with very high waiting times and a bad service like the Welsh NHS.
It’s agreeable that the Yes side in the Scottish referendum had not played too much the ethnic nationalist card. Quebec have the "old school" nationalist bent, language is an important issue, even if strict language laws have made that Quebec is seen as a francophone state in North America, there is a difficult relationship among some elements of the nationalist bend with people not so cool to the nationalists. Language has in a way replaced the Roman Catholic Church as the main factor in Quebecois nationalism.
Immigrants, anglophones and First Nations have never been at ease with the Parti Québécois (Quebec’s answer to the SNP) since their former leader Jacques Parizeau said on election night as First Minister that he was beaten ‘essentially with money and some ethnic votes". As the former charismatic nationalist first minister Lucien Bouchard (who was considered to be a right-winger in his party) said recently in a documentary, having Parizeau saying that on referendum night was like "losing two times".
The other fact is that the PQ had suffered their worse election result since 1970 just a few months ago in part because of a policy which turned badly because they wanted to have a majority government at all costs. The Quebec Charter of Values which would have been prohibited employees of the state from wearing any visible religious symbol. This radical policy was seen among many immigrants and more progressive members of the nationalist coalition as a toxic policy in order to please a portion of rural Quebec which is quite right-wing. The Charter was also technically unconstitutional (among both the Canadian and Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms), and they were an impression among some that this charter was a tool designed to receive disapproval from the Federal Supreme Court, in order to create a constitutional crisis to play the independence card.
This means that today, the Quebec’s version of the SNP are in a bad state, being third right now in the latest polls behind the centrist Liberal Party and the centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec with left-wingers going to Quebec Solidaire which is an socialist party who is also for independence. The PQ is also being divided in a coming leadership battle between the right-wing and the left-wing of the party, along with a current corruption inquiry which tend to hurt everyone who was in power in the few decades in Quebec. The PQ is also doing more and more badly among younger voters in Quebec, which is a new trend, but perhaps a trend that it was the party of one generation, which was the generation born during the after-war baby boom.
Perhaps that it’s not too crazy to think that Quebec is what Scotland will be in decades. But one thing is sure, history told us in Quebec case that it is foolish to write off a pro-independence movement even if they lose a referendum. I see a strong case that even if it’s a losing referendum, the SNP in power would want to do another referendum as soon as they have the public opinion on their side. It’s as in Quebec’s case, a neverendum. A referendum that never ends.
Sadly, the no side in the Scottish side had done the same mistake as in Quebec, having taken for granted their support as the no side had done in the 1995 referendum in Quebec, and they are now panicking a week before the vote, with none other than Gordon Brown taking the lead. This is as weird as it could gets, all this in a campaign where it’s dumb and dumber between the yes and the no sides.
PS: To the English people saying that it would be a good thing Scotland would go, be careful what you wish for, as it is very likely that England and the rest of the UK, will have trouble in the next few years during the transition period if the yes wins Negotiations could turn out sour regarding contentious things such as natural resources and the debt. It will have impact on people in the UK one way or the other. This is why it’s always risky for "rich" countries to have something as drastic as independence, especially when they have a lot to lose unlike places like South Sudan or Kosovo.