Analysis: So which government is right on the big question?
NUMBERS are beguiling. The bigger they are, the more compelling they sound. So it was probably inevitable that politicians on both sides of the argument should have fallen into the trap of quoting statistics when debating the results of the UK government’s referendum consultation.
Thus, Mr Moore’s headline finding was that 75 per cent stated there should be a single question on independence with no second question on devolution-max, a result that in his view constituted a “resounding endorsement” of the UK government’s position.
Mr Salmond retorted that, as the Scottish Government’s consultation has already received more than four times as many responses as did that organised by London, his findings would prove the more reliable.
But bigger is not necessarily better. In truth, no consultation, however many participate in it, can be relied upon to tell us anything reliable about the balance of public opinion. There is no guarantee that those who go to the time and effort to respond to such an exercise are representative of anybody or anything at all.
If either the UK or the Scottish Government had wanted to ascertain where the balance of opinion lies on how the independence referendum should be conducted, they should have commissioned a survey, not a consultation.
Moreover, none of the polls on the subject have replicated Mr Moore’s 75 per cent finding; two have suggested opinion is more or less evenly divided on the number of questions, while two others found a clear majority in favour of two.
What consultations are potentially useful for is ascertaining arguments and difficulties that ministers and officials had not thought of when formulating policy and which might affect the success of the path they are proposing to take.
However, the arguments quoted in the document Mr Moore published were for the most part already well worn.
Even when conducted in the right spirit, however, the value of a consultation depends on the quality of the questions asked. It is perhaps here above all that the UK consultation proved less than ideal.
In asking people whether there should be one question or two, the consultation document referred readers to the proposal for two questions that had first been put forward by the Scottish Government in February 2010. That proposal had been widely criticised long before Mr Moore asked people for their views, and has since been withdrawn. As a result, the UK’s consultation takes us little further forward on the merits of one question or two.
Equally, when Mr Moore’s consultation asked whether the referendum should be sooner rather than later, it failed to indicate what it meant by sooner. It certainly did not say it meant 2013 rather than 2014. Consequently, that 70 per cent think it should be sooner tells us little, for we cannot presume that by this they all meant “before 2014”.
In any event, nothing will happen now until the Scottish Government has concluded its consultation. Only then will the hard bargaining between London and Edinburgh begin.
• John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University.
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