Why 40% is the magic number in the Scottish referendum

by Stephen Tall on July 6, 2014

Brazil v Scotland 22For some reason, 40% is a figure which has long exerted political significance.

That devolution for Scotland wasn’t introduced in 1979 wasn’t because a majority of those who voted didn’t want it: by 52% to 48% the Scottish voted in favour of establishing a Scottish parliament. However, a Labour MP, George Cunningham, introduced an amendment to the Scotland Act (1978) specifying a minimum turnout threshold of 40% of the electorate. The actual turnout of 33% meant Scottish devolution had to wait a further two decades.

I was reminded of this when talking recently to a Lib Dem who was heavily involved in the Alternative Vote referendum campaign. “Did you ever think it was winnable?” I asked. “Not by about January,” he admitted. “But I did hope we could get at least 40% voting for it – that would have kept electoral reform on the table.” The actual result, a heavy defeat of AV by 68% to 32% on a 42% turnout, meant that chance was lost.

I’d suggest there’s something similarly important about the end-result in the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum. The polls are consistently clear that the Scots will not vote for separation from the rest of the UK. However, they disagree about the likely margin – an odd phenomenon YouGov’s Peter Kellner wrote about this week. My rule-of-thumb is that a Yes vote above 40% and the question of independence remains alive; below 40% and it is settled for a generation (though like the UK’s membership of the European Union it may never be truly resolved).

However, the idea that defeat for independence will mean the SNP shrinks away, tail between its legs, is wide of the mark. At least one senior Labour figure, a former cabinet minister, has privately highlighted the danger to his party of a No vote at the May 2015 general election. His reason? Having rejected independence, the Scottish voters will want an insurance policy their wishes won’t be ignored by Westminster. A large SNP representation there would be the best way to ensure that. He predicts up to 30 Scottish nationalist MPs will be returned.

I don’t know Scottish politics well enough to know how plausible such a scenario is. But, if he’s right, Alex Salmond poses much more of a danger to Labour’s election hopes than Nigel Farage.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.