About a billion years ago, I recall seeing a TV documentary about the 1979 devolution referendum, in which George Cunningham (weirdly regarded as a 'moderate' Labour MP who later defected to the SDP) was challenged to defend the notorious 40% rule he had devised. His justification was that the proponents of devolution had repeatedly claimed that there was "overwhelming public support" for a Scottish Assembly, and that it was not unreasonable to put that claim to the test. Well, testing is one thing, but requiring is quite another. If it turns out that there is a narrow majority for devolution rather than overwhelming support, you're entitled to bragging rights because you've been proved correct that your opponents overstated their case. What you're not entitled to do is use that technical satisfaction as an excuse to deny the public what they've voted for - not unless you're some sort of tinpot dictator, of course.
And yet what Kevin Maguire would call the "anti-devo campaign" just about got away with the 40% rule. Why? Probably in part because it didn't set the Yes campaign an insurmountable target. It required a relatively conventional sort of supermajority, rather than something that was totally impossible to achieve, and therefore seemed to some people just about defensible. On a 60% turnout, a 2-1 Yes majority would have been needed - which is a very tall order, make no mistake. But some referendums do produce 2-1 majorities, and some referendums produce turnouts a lot higher than 60%. The result on the main question of the 1997 devolution referendum would, for example, have cleared the 40% rule if it had been in force once again.
By contrast, almost no democrat in this country or beyond these shores will regard the reported Liz Truss plan for a "50% rule" as anything other than an attempt to rig the outcome of an independence referendum. The Yes campaign could win by a landslide and be declared a loser based on a rule that did not apply in the 2014 indyref, and perhaps more to the point did not apply in the 2016 Brexit referendum - the ultra-narrow result of which Truss claims to be honour-bound to implement. How it would actually thwart independence in the real world is far from clear. If I was the SNP leadership, I would just say "fine, we'll go ahead with the referendum without recognising the legitimacy of the ludicrous rule the Tories have just legislated for". A clear Yes majority might not carry legal weight but it would carry tremendous political and moral weight, which in the long run would count for more.
An analogy would be the process by which communist rule suddenly ended in Poland in 1989. The communists thought they had been very clever by agreeing to a deal which on paper guaranteed them a majority regardless of the outcome of the election. Only the upper house and one-third of the lower house was to be contested on a multi-party basis, which should have ensured a minimum of a two-thirds communist majority in the all-important lower house. But in the end, the sheer momentum generated by Solidarity's success in the seats they were allowed to contest meant that communist allies were queueing up to desert the sinking ship, and within the blink of an eye there was a Solidarity-led government. In a similar way, a clear Yes majority in an indyref would likely generate sufficient momentum to clear away seemingly insuperable barriers.
In any case, doesn't a 50% rule send a pretty clear message that Truss and co expect more people to vote Yes than No? It's a tactic born of weakness, not of strength.
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