Quebec goes to the polls in a few days' time, in a provincial election which could in theory set in train a sequence of events leading to a third referendum on independence. I recall watching a live stream of the election results last time round, and fascinating it was too - although the anti-independence Liberals held on for another term, it was generally agreed that the Parti Québécois had secured a moral victory by finishing a close second and by comprehensively seeing off the party (the ADQ) that had pushed it into third place in 2007. In a way, it almost looked as if the PQ had "provisionally won the next election", because it seemed inevitable that by 2012 or 2013 the electorate would be looking for a change after a decade of Liberal rule, and that the PQ would be best-placed to take advantage.
Four years on, however, the legacy of that moral victory looks somewhat less than clear-cut. The PQ do indeed hold a lead in most of the polls, but it's a narrow one, and a new party called the CAQ has risen from the ashes of the ADQ to once again threaten the Liberal-PQ duopoly - something which is potentially dangerous for the PQ under a FPTP system that usually severely punishes any party outside the top two. Intriguingly, the CAQ is led by a former pro-independence government minister who claims that his new party is neither sovereigntist nor federalist. To Scottish (and Northern Irish) ears that probably sounds like sophistry - people in this country who want to "move on" from the constitutional debate generally want to do so in a decidedly anti-independence way. But to be fair, the CAQ are only suggesting that the sovereignty debate be put on the back-burner for ten years, and claim that in the meantime they will advocate neither independence nor Canadian unity. This could yet be a dilemma that the SNP have to grapple with one day, because if the worst happens and there is a No vote to independence in 2014, the question of how long it would be before another referendum is appropriate would be very much of the 'how long is a piece of string' variety.
As for the PQ themselves, I'm always struck by the unalloyed hatred the party attracts in English-speaking Canada - way beyond anything the SNP have to put up with here. I know that doesn't seem possible, but just take a look at the comments section of Canadian news articles some time. There was a recent article branding the PQ as "xenophobes" for wanting to introduce a law requiring that candidates for public office should be fluent in French. On the face of it, that is indeed a bit of a draconian step in a province that has a large number of native English speakers, but there is an arguable justification for the proposal. At the last federal election, the social democratic NDP shocked everyone, not least themselves, by sweeping the board in Quebec. Because it was such a surprise, many of the successful candidates were 'paper candidates' from other parts of Canada who couldn't speak French. By definition, this means that much of Quebec now has very poor parliamentary representation - an MP who can't communicate properly with the majority of his constituents is not a good MP. It's impossible to imagine this scenario happening in a majority French-speaking independent state, so it's understandable that a legal remedy is being sought to ensure that as far as possible it can't happen to French-speakers as a linguistic minority within Canada either. But it's still a bad, illiberal idea, and also tactically foolish - why introduce a law that will ensure your opponents put up a better quality of candidate against you?