Scottish voter turnout history

The whole of the UK goes to the polling stations on Thursday to decide whether to leave or remain in the European Union. All the main political parties in Scotland are asking us to vote Remain and those campaigning here for a Leave vote seem to reside on the political fringe. However I get the feeling that this referendum hasn’t really pierced the bubble of Scottish public consciousness in any big way compared to the engagement in England. This tweet from David Halliday sums up for me the prevalent mood in Scotland as we approach 23 June 2016.

With that in mind, I fear that the Scottish turnout for the EU referendum might not exceed 40%

As the Scottish Parliament votes came in from the count centres on 8 May 2016, I can’t have been the only one a bit taken aback upon hearing that the turnout percentage was in the mid-fifties. In the wake of unprecedented turnout (85%) at the 2014 referendum followed by a respectable 71.5% (in Scotland) for the Westminster general election in 2015, it felt like an unexpected return to voter disinterest, if not apathy. Other more seasoned political observers were probably not surprised at all. Indeed the 55.8% turnout in 2016 is the largest among Scottish Parliament elections since the inaugural Holyrood vote in 1999, which saw 58.1% of the Scottish electorate cast their votes. Those figures suggest that Scots still see Holyrood as a less important chamber than Westminster, which is food for thought in these days of fast-moving political landscapes. We do well to heed the words of Prof John Curtice before May’s Holyrood election:

The one thing we do need to realise, however, is that the for most people, even in a politically engaged Scotland, politics is not the centre of their life, they are not particularly interested.

That surprise I felt at the turnout for the Scottish Parliament election of 2016 prompted me to collate some data on the historical voter turnout figures in Scotland going back to 1975 when the original IN/OUT referendum on membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) took place. You can see the full picture of Scottish voter turnout plotted on the chart below (scroll left and right to see it all as it is a wide chart). Most of the recent turnout data comes from the Electoral Commission, though others were more difficult to track down. The numbers and links to each source is listed in a google spreadsheet.

You can see from these data that there is, broadly speaking, a hierarchy of Scottish voting patterns in terms of turnout, ranked as follows:

  1. Westminster
  2. Referendums
  3. Scottish Parliament
  4. Local council elections
  5. European Parliament

Examining the chart in more detail, there are many observations one can make. Here are just a few that spring to mind.

  1. The 2014 Referendum was something pretty special, to quote Prof Curtice again, it was “the biggest participative event in Scotland’s democratic history”.
  2. In comparison, the referendums of 1975 (EEC in/out), 1979 (Scottish devolution) and 1997 (Scottish devolution) produced turnout percentages in the low 60s.
  3. The high-rolling turnouts of the Westminster general elections took a downturn when New Labour was the sitting government in 2001, 2005 and 2010.
  4. The dramatic sea-change Westminster general election of 2015, which wiped out the Labour Party in Scotland, had more or less the same turnout as the 1997 general election which first brought New Labour to power.
  5. The six Westminster general elections before 1997 consistently produced greater turnouts in Scotland than we’ve seen since.

These observations challenge the oft-heard assertions about greater political engagement and participation in Scotland since the referendum. We await to see if the Scottish electorate will respond on Thursday with a 60%+ turnout in keeping with the referendums of the 1970s and 1997 or something below 40%, more in line with our European Parliament showings.

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