THE Ayes have it – so far…
Alex Salmond’s proposed referendum question is surprisingly straightforward and fair – which could be a problem for his opponents. Politics is about setting the agenda. This is particularly true for referendums. The one who frames the debate, controls the political battlefield.
It might be in recognition of this insight that the First Minister smiled slightly wryly when he presented the consultation Your Referendum –Your Scotland yesterday.
Come 2014, voters north of the Border will be asked: “Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?” No more. No less. Well, almost, for the First Minister still held open the possibility of an alternative question on the ballot, namely on devo-max. But for now – so it seems – the debate on a second question or a multi-option referendum seems to have been kicked into the proverbial long grass.
Not surprisingly, Johann Lamont, Scottish Labour leader, criticised Salmond for not asking a straight question. But by proposing a simple question, the SNP administration has taken the sting out of this attack.
In most other referendums on nationalism the voters have been asked a rhetorical question which no sensible person on the face of it can say no to, and so say no anyway.
In Quebec in Canada in 1980, the voters were asked to approve “sovereignty association”, a concept that focus groups suggested could win a majority, but which no-one could define.
But the unclear question raised suspicion, and the voters became alienated and turned their backs on the otherwise popular Parti Quebeçois. The referendum was lost by a 60:40 margin.
That honesty (almost) pays off was shown 15 years later, when the voters were asked “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign?” The referendum was lost by a margin of only 50.8-49.2.
By posing a clear and unequivocal question, Mr Salmond has shifted the debate and it is now the SNP that appears to have the moral high ground. Of course, this does not mean that those in favour of independence will win the vote. But the SNP strategy will help.
• Dr Matt Qvortrup is author of the book A Comparative Study of Referendums