NICOLA Sturgeon has admitted the SNP government would need a “very good reason” to ignore official advice from the country’s elections watchdog for a change to the proposed referendum question.
The Electoral Commission looks set to recommend today that the question proposed by the SNP government – “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” – is not fair, because it “leads” voters in the direction of a positive response, and should be changed.
Instead, it is expected to recommend that voters are asked “Should Scotland be an independent country?” in the historic ballot next year. The Deputy First Minister indicated yesterday that ministers could be ready to accept this.
“I have made very clear the considerable weight that will be attached to Electoral Commission recommendations by the Scottish Government, not just on the referendum but on any relevant issue,” Ms Sturgeon said.
“I’ve also made very clear, and will do so again, that there would have to be a very good reason to depart from Electoral Commission recommendations.
“Any government so doing would have to explain its position to this parliament.”
It is understood the Electoral Commission tested four questions through pollsters and found a problem with the SNP’s preferred option.
The SNP administration is already on a collision course with the Electoral Commission over plans to impose strict campaign spending limits amid concerns the SNP could be outspent by its pro-Union opponents.
Ms Sturgeon said the government would respond to the recommendations in a “meaningful way” when they were published later today. But she said: “The referendum will be conducted completely impartially and to the highest, not just domestic standards, but international standards, and that is absolutely beyond doubt.”
She added: “As with referendums held under UK legislation, it is for the government to propose the referendum question, the Electoral Commission to test the question and the parliament to make a final decision.
“The Scottish Government will consider the wording of the question and indeed other matters relating to the conduct of the referendum in light of the commission’s advice and, of course, the Scottish Parliament will have the final say during its scrutiny of the referendum legislation.”
Blair Jenkins, head of the official pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign, said at the weekend that ministers would have to accept the findings of the commission.
Labour’s constitution spokeswoman Patricia Ferguson said yesterday there was a “growing clamour of voices” calling on the Scottish Government to obey the recommendations of the commission.
“For this referendum to be carried out in a fair and proper manner and, as importantly, to be seen to be carried out in a fair and proper manner, the recommendations of the Electoral Commission must be the guiding principles for the conduct of the referendum,” the Labour MSP said.
Another Labour MSP, James Kelly, said it was in the “interests of all parties” that the referendum was seen to be conducted fairly.
“I do believe that fairness could be compromised by Scottish Government proposals on spending limits, which would see lead organisations with less than half to spend in real terms than in 1997 and political parties with less to spend than in council elections,” he said.
He added: “The impartiality of the referendum process could be undermined if the Scottish Government imposes such unrealistic spending limits.”
But a climbdown on campaign spending appears less likely, with the SNP concerned about a proposed £1.5 million limit, along with additional spending for the pro-Union parties, in the crucial “restricted period” of the last 16 weeks before the vote.
A £1.5m limit has been backed by the commission, but the SNP is set to slash that figure amid concerns that its opponents will be able to outspend it.
Ms Sturgeon revealed last year that this was the key stumbling block in negotiations with the coalition government before the “Edinburgh Agreement”, paving the way for the referendum, was sealed.
The SNP government will unveil its referendum bill at Holyrood in March, which will include the question that Mr Salmond intends to ask voters and the rules on spending limits.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson yesterday backed calls for the SNP to implement the findings of the Electoral Commission.
She said: “It is only right that voters are presented with a fair and concise question in the referendum on whether they want to separate from the UK.
“There is no question the independent Electoral Commission is the most appropriate body to carry out this exercise and their conclusions should be fully respected.”
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie sadi: “Rejecting the considered word of the expert Electoral Commission would shatter confidence amongst those who seek a fair process in the independence referendum.”