Of supermajorities and double majorities: In every referendum in the UK a majority of votes has been fine

Alasdair Galloway

In this morning’s Herald (30/11) there is a letter from my old chum Peter A Russell (often wonder what the A is for – any suggestions beyond the obvious?) in reply to Gavin Weir’s the day before.

Gavin’s letter, to save you looking it up, goes like this:

Rules must be the same for all

NICE of Mark Smith (“Anti-democratic Scots? You talking to me, First Minister?”, November 28) to give us his personal opinion on the constitution, but if there are “rules” then they must be the same rules for all, and 50+1 is the norm.

I do not recall the Labour party insisting that the EU referendum could not go ahead without a 60% vote share. No: an electoral minority sufficed.

Sir Keir Starmer stated in 2020 that a parliamentary majority at Holyrood entitled Scotland to have a second independence referendum but, like too many others, he has reneged on this commitment.

Mark Smith asserts a “different” route to an independence referendum exists, but doesn’t spell out what it is—perhaps because it differs from the UK norm.

I have tried, by letter, to raise my fears that the endless constitutional jiggery-pokery, and use of a veto, by British politicians would lead to unconstitutional methods similar to Ireland (it’s why they have the right to self-determination) happening in Scotland.

I pose a real question to Mr Smith and his ilk—what will you say if a bomb goes off, say on a gas pipeline or electricity interconnector? Use the ballot box?

GR Weir, Ochiltree

Russell, typically (one-trick pony), focuses on the majority that should be required, but rather than the “my bowling club demands three quarters of members to vote for an amendment to our constitution. Surely Scotland should be the same” nonsense, adopts a lighter approach. His letter below:

The FM, not waving but drowning

G.R. Weir (letters, November 29) demands that any new independence referendum should be conducted on a basis of 50% + 1 of those voting. This, he tells us, is because it is the British Way Of Doing Things – and because it has been such a big success in delivering Brexit.

Some of us respectfully beg to differ.

There are examples both great and small (the USA and the SNP itself, respectively) of organisations demanding that constitutional changes require a two-thirds vote. Likewise, there are better examples around the world of successful once-and-for-all referendums than Brexit, and these have generally required a super-majority or a double majority.

In these respects, I am much encouraged by what Nicola Sturgeon had to say on the subject at the end of her Not Waving But Drowning speech after the Supreme Court ruling.

She told us that her democratic event should prove (to quote) “majority support beyond doubt.” This standard clearly cannot be met by a simple majority of those voting, unless there is a North Korean-style 100% turnout. Later, in his BBC Newsnight interview, her SNP Deputy Leader Keith Brown spoke of “50% + 1 of the electorate” – not 50% + 1 of those voting.

One supposes that these matters will be debated in a free and democratic way at Ms Sturgeon’s SNP Special Conference in the New Year. We can only hope that her party members will support their leader and her deputy in their belief that the British Way is not the best way, and that there are examples from all round the world where super-majorities and double majorities are required for major constitutional changes.

As nationalists say in so many other cases: if it works in other countries, why not in Scotland?

Peter A. Russell, Jordanhill, Glasgow

In his usual way, Russell is more significant for what he doesn’t say or make clear.

For instance, by citing the USA as an example of an organization “demanding that constitutional changes require a two-thirds vote” as a benchmark for an independence referendum in Scotland is inappropriate, as constitutional change in the USA does indeed require a two thirds vote, BUT in both Houses of Congress, followed by ratification at state level, not in a referendum.  His comparison is apples and cabbages!

However, even more seriously, the Constitution Unit of University College London, considers an uncodified constitution (ie one not brought together in a single document) such as the UK’s are “harder to understand”, but “easier to amend” than countries which have a codified constitution, often having “elaborate amendment procedures”. In this regard the USA is a good comparison, but not one reflecting well on the UK.

That an uncodified constitution such as the UK’s is more easily amended is supported by the fact that the British constitution can be amended by the House of Commons exercising its sovereignty. For instance, relatively recent amendments to the UK constitution include the introduction of the Human Rights Act, and devolution to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but none were subject to a minimum majority – in theory a single vote would have been enough. No nonsense about x% of the votes. Why should independence for Scotland be any different? Unless of course your real intent is to protect the Union from the possibility of losing?

Russell then goes on to endorse of Nicola Sturgeon and Keith Brown’s endorsement of “50% + 1 of the electorate” – not 50% + 1 of those voting”. But this begs the question of what is meant by “the electorate”?

The obvious answer is “those entitled to vote”, and therefore the electoral roll. The Cunningham amendments in 1979, however, used a roll including those unable to vote (in hospital, out of the country, or even having died since that roll was drawn up). Moreover, there are two electoral rolls. One for Westminster elections and the other for elections to Holyrood and Scottish local government, with the latter, for instance, including 16- and 17-year-olds. There is, clearly, considerable scope for disagreement about which roll should be used.

Thus, in a single letter, published in Scotland’s leading “quality newspaper”, Russell manages to be misleading in his comparison of the processes used in the UK and USA to amend their constitutions, as well as reducing the importance of what is meant by the “electorate” to what seems a simple fact when it is strategically critical (as he well knows).

Most importantly, while he has banged on about “super-majorities and double majorities” for some time now, to paraphrase his conclusion, despite encouragement he has never once tried to explain “why in Scotland?”. In every referendum in the UK (eg Brexit) a majority of votes has been fine, and would be fine in a border poll in Ireland – just not in Scotland! I think we should be told. But will they publish?

6 thoughts on “Of supermajorities and double majorities: In every referendum in the UK a majority of votes has been fine

  1. Mr Russell , in common with so many Unionists today , is projecting his own feelings and fears on to that which he must detests – those who wish for Scottish Independence .
    ”Not waiving but drowning ” sums up so much of the reaction of Unionists to the fact that Independence will not just dry up and blow away .
    Election after election those damned SNP voters keep winning , Holyrood AND Westminster elections !
    So Unionist politicians and acolytes ( that’s you , Mr Russell) deny , deny , deny !
    Not at this time ; not now ; now is not the time ; …

    The People have spoken , Mr Russell , The B*stards !

    Liked by 2 people

  2. AS American writer H. L. Mencken opines:
    ‘The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.’

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes but there are 50 states ranging in size from little Massachusetts to very large California. Moreover while the House of Representatives is population dependent, so the latter has many more Representatives than the former, the Senate is strictly two Senators per state. If the UK was run like this, it wouldnt change the lower house – it would still be 85% England. But an upper house would have the same representation for England, Scotland, Wales and NI. You can see that happening cant you?
      Moreover in many (not all) regards power in the States flows upwardly. It’s not like Washington invariably dictates to the member States, unlike the UK where power is reserved to the centre.


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