The highest turnout for a national election in Scotland in the past fifty years seems to have been the February 1974 General Election, where over 78% of registered voters voted.
The turnout for the devolution referendum in March 1979 was 63.72%: 51.62% of those voted Yes to a Scottish Assembly, 48.38% voted No, a majority for Yes of 3.24%. But, according to the terms of that referendum, set down in 1978, the Assembly had to get over 40% of the electorate – there were 3,747,112 registered voters, so they needed at least 267,908 more votes for Yes to be allowed to win. 1,359,540 people were registered to vote and didn’t – the turnout was 63.72%, with only 0.13% rejected ballots.
The UK General Election in May 1979 got a turnout of 76.84% – that is, 532,198 more registered voters turned out to vote three months later than in the Assembly referendum. To win an Assembly under the 40% rule, the campaign would have had to get a higher turnout than average for 70s General Elections, and maintain its 51.62% share of the vote.
In May 2011, the SNP won a majority in the Scottish Parliament – a victory that was unprecedented for both party and Parliament.
Douglas Alexander, Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, believes (Independent, 22nd January) this victory came about partly because of a renewed Scottish nationalism but primarily because:
In contrast, Scottish Labour failed to recognise the changed environment that, ironically, it had help to create. [Pretty sure Doug means “had helped” not “had help”, though it certainly did have help from SNP, Scottish LibDem, Scottish Greens, and the Scottish Socialist Party] The party was left singing the old hymns and warning of the risks of Thatcherism at a time when these songs were increasingly unfamiliar to a new audience with no personal knowledge of the tunes. In truth, Scottish Labour never felt it needed to be New Labour because arguably that process of modernisation was not needed to defeat the Tories in Scotland, but this complacency, in time, left us vulnerable to attack from a different direction from more nimble opponents.
There are much simpler answers why the Scots tended to vote SNP this time. Part of it may have been due to fed-upness with Labour (which I’ll deal with later), partly it may have been the Westminster brigade arriving in Scotland in April 2011 on a rescue mission, but mostly, I think, it was just that the Liberal Democrats had put a Tory UK government in. Voting for the LibDems was seen as voting Tory, and Scots don’t vote Tory. (Well, not many, and those that do, vote for the real Tory party.)