SCOTLAND’s main unionist parties have appointed a panel of election experts to compose a single question for the independence referendum, in a direct challenge to the SNP.
The group announced yesterday includes Lord Sutherland, a former Edinburgh University principal, referendum expert Dr Matt Qvortrup and Ron Gould, who published a critical report on the 2007 Scottish elections.
First Minister Alex Salmond has previously hinted he would back a second question on a proposal to extend the Scottish Parliament’s tax-raising powers while leaving the country within the Union.
However, Labour, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats said the panel would submit a “clear and neutral” form of words for a straight Yes-No ballot to the UK’s Electoral Commission.
Mr Salmond has already pledged that his preferred question will be rigorously tested by the Electoral Commission, but critics complain the wording invites a positive response.
The launch of the panel came as Scotland Office Minister David Mundell said backing a second question would be an “upfront admission of defeat” for Mr Salmond, and that the SNP could not win full independence ahead of the referendum in autumn 2014.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said the panel would deliver a “balanced and fair” referendum question, as she appealed to Mr Salmond to back the move on a cross-party basis.
She said: “This is an opportunity to agree on one of the fundamental parts of the referendum process in a way that is above party politics and partisan views, and the door is still open for Alex Salmond to join with us and take this forward on a cross-party basis.”
Ms Lamont, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie will now invite Professor Stephen Tierney, recently appointed as the SNP’s sole adviser on the referendum process, to join the panel.
The move came after fresh splits emerged in the pro-independence campaign. Scottish Green leader Patrick Harvie this week said it was “difficult to see” how a second question could be included on the referendum ballot.
The panel is expected to submit its question to the Electoral Commission by the autumn, just before the results of the Scottish Government’s independence consultation are expected to be published.
Lord Sutherland said: “A referendum which proposes such a choice requires a clear, understandable and unbiased question.
“To produce and vote upon such a question is the ultimate test of a mature democracy.
“For this to be done and seen to be done, it is essential to seek the help of the Electoral Commission.”
Dr Qvortrup said: “It is essential the question is clear and unbiased and that the outcome reflects the settled will of the Scottish people”.
However, a spokesman for the First Minister dismissed the panel as a “desperate and silly gimmick”.
Three wise men with a wealth of experience
THE three members of the panel are drawn from the world of academia and election management.
Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats insist they will “work independently of the parties” in drafting the single question.
Academic Lord Sutherland is a former principal of Edinburgh University, who in 1997 chaired the Royal Commission on long-term care for older people which laid the foundation for free care for the elderly in Scotland. He is also a former vice-chancellor of the University of London.
Professor Matt Qvortrup is a widely published referendum expert and is currently senior lecturer of comparative politics at Cranfield University’s centre for international security and resilience. He has recently finished research on a comparative historical study of nationalism and referendums.
Dr Qvortrup has previously worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the United Nations.
Ron Gould is the former assistant chief electoral officer of Canada who has participated in more than 80 elections in 50 countries. Mr Gould has a reputation as one of the world’s leading authorities on election organisation, and he produced the critical report on the 2007 Scottish elections.