Meeting with premier of Québec squeezed between existing diary commitments of Scotland’s first minister
It was billed as a “historic meeting” between two senior nationalist leaders, the premiers of Québec and Scotland. So Pauline Marois, leader of the French-speaking province in Canada, arrived in Edinburgh to meet Alex Salmond with great expectations of high political theatre.
Instead, it became, in the words of one mystified Québécois journalist who has followed Marois’s short European tour after last week’s Davos world summit, “anything but”. Their meeting was in private, squeezed between Salmond’s existing diary commitments.
The large press corp that had travelled from Canada to Switzerland, then to London and finally Edinburgh, were irritated: they were expecting a public event with both leaders, something with historic significance.
But then, those seeking sovereignty for Québec have twice failed to win independence referendums – the last in 1995 by the narrowest of margins, and then on a very convoluted question. Marois is leading a minority government likely to face an election within a year.
It seemed that Scotland’s first minister, a shrewd political operator with an often exquisite sense of political timing, was far less enthralled. His officials were puzzled by the heavy billing that their meeting was getting in the Québécois and Canadian media.
“It’s purely a courtesy event: ‘very nice to meet you’,” said one bemused civil servant in Edinburgh.
“The Quebecois are making more of this. We’ve a photographer in there who will take a handshake, [a] greeting; he’s meeting her in between running votes, so it will be short.” But she stressed: “He is delighted to meet her, and share some understanding. But that will be it.”
They exchanged gifts: a hand-crafted clock from the Highlands for a copy of a bronze statue from the Musée de Bronze d’Inverness in Québec City. Far from the “summit”, as it was billed by the Québécois, Salmond was fitting their private meeting in between a keynote speech on renewable energy in Aberdeen, a key vote on legal aid and civil justice reform in Edinburgh, and a political speech in Glasgow.
He was running a busy schedule: while Marois’s team was pre-briefing on the unprecedented nature of their meeting in his private offices at Holyrood, there was no mention of the event in his pre-published official diary for this week. There was no agenda agreed.
Marois, however, was insistent this event was indeed historic: it was the first time a Québécois separatist premier had met another pro-independence head of government. The staging was not important, she said.
Instead of being brief, their discussion lasted 45 minutes and was wide-ranging, and would lead to further, closer contact and collaboration on economic issues, climate change and sustainability and new, green energy technologies.
Crucially, she later told reporters, it would boost her movement at home: Scotland too was to stage a referendum on independence. That was inspiring. “It is encouraging because when you see people [such] as the Scottish population, which has such a long history, to decide to ask the question on their future in a referendum, I think it is hope for us,” she said.