VOTERS in Scotland should be asked a “clear, decisive” question on independence in the forthcoming referendum, leaving the issue of further devolution for another date, according to a panel of experts commissioned by the political parties backing the Union..
The group, led by former Edinburgh University vice-chancellor Lord Sutherland, concluded yesterday that the fairest and most decisive way to put the question would be to ask voters either to agree or disagree that “Scotland should become an independent state”.
The verdict of the panel, commissioned by the three pro-Union parties Labour, the Conservatives and the LibDems, is similar to the SNP’s own preferred wording on the vote, likely to take place in 2014, suggesting that the detail of the ballot paper is now taking shape.
The Scottish Government’s proposed question – which asks people “Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country?” – was criticised by experts as being a leading question that wasworded in a way more likely to elicit a positive response.
Yesterday, Lord Sutherland, Canadian elections officer Ron Gould and UK referendum expert Dr Matt Qvotrup said their “unambiguous” suggestion could ensure agreement among both sides in the referendum battle, in order to “clear the ground” for the more important debate on the issues surrounding independence.
But they said that in order to ensure clarity, the proposal left open by the SNP Government to offer a second question asking people whether they wanted more powers for Holyrood should be dropped until the issue of independence had been settled.
Mr Gould, who previously reported on the 2007 Scottish Parliament election shambles, warned that a two-question formula would make it “very difficult” for voters, running the risk people would get confused by the different options.
Lord Sutherland also said that any question proposing an extensive shift of power from Whitehall to Holyrood would have to consider the views of voters south of the Border who would be affected by it.
Their conclusions come with Alex Salmond preparing to unveil his own plans next month on how to proceed with the referendum. While he too has proposed a single question on independence, the First Minister has also suggested he could propose a two-question referendum.
The Scottish Government will submit its question to the Electoral Commission, with the commission then offering recommendations for consideration. They are not, however, binding on the government.
The final decision on the question will be taken by the Scottish Parliament which has an SNP majority.
The three leaders of the pro-Union parties wrote jointly to Mr Salmond yesterday to consider endorsing the question, which they have now backed. They also said he had to rule out proposing a second question on devolution.
The SNP government welcomed elements of the expert group’s work, but said that the paper would be considered alongside the 26,000 responses it has received on its consultation on the referendum. Parts of the proposed question put forward by the expert panel yesterday were seized on by both sides to support their own case on the format of the vote.
The Sutherland review attempts to meet criticism of a leading question by simply proposing a statement, and then asking people to tick a box saying whether they agree or disagree with it. It also removes the “yes-no” formulation favoured by the pro-independence side, which has already named its main campaign “YesScotland”.
Lord Sutherland said: “We are very firmly of the view that such a format will give the people an opportunity to give their democratic view on the matter of independence.”
Previous questions favoured by the pro-Union side have suggested that it should specifically state that Scotland would be leaving the United Kingdom.
But the experts said that, given the lengthy two-year debate that was set to ensue on the issue, it would be unnecessary to make that specific.
Lord Sutherland said: “The idea that before now and 2014 the public won’t be very well aware, perhaps wearingly aware on people’s views on independence, isn’t credible.”
He added that the panel preferred to use the term “independent” in the question, rather than “separate”, as is used by pro-Union figures. He said: “We think ‘independent’ is clearer”.
In their conclusions, the panel also argued that it would be clearer to use the word “state” rather than “country”, saying the former term indicated that this was a “constitutional issue”. At present “Scotland is a country, but it is not a state,” Lord Sutherland said.
The panel was clear that the referendum should be about one issue only.
Mr Gould said: “A second question makes it very difficult both for the voter to have a clear picture because there is a tendency to mix up the arguments as the parties do pros and cons.”
He also warned it would be difficult to know whether people would alter their response to a question on independence, in the knowledge they were also being given an option on more devolution.
Lord Sutherland said that there was no “clear formulation” on what more devolution would mean. He also said that the question of a more powerful Scottish Parliament was a matter “for general elections when you put it to the people”.
The third member of the panel, Dr Matt Qvotrup said: “Every people has a right to self-determination, but that right can only be exercised if they are asked a clear and unequivocal question.”
He also published research showing that there is no “firm evidence” to show that ‘biased’ or ‘loaded’ questions alter the outcome of a referendum.
The panel said the most important influence was the actual meat of the debate prior to the vote.
The panel also said they agreed that it was for the Scottish Government to propose a question and offer it to the independent Electoral Commission to decide upon.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said she hoped all party leaders would endorse the Sutherland formula to ensure “that no advantage can be gained from either side.”
Scots Tory leader Ruth Davidson added: “It is obvious from the panel’s excellent work that a referendum is only effective when there is clarity on both the issue and the question, so this must rule out any notion of a further question on devolution which would produce nothing but confusion”.
A spokesman for SNP minister Bruce Crawford said the panel’s findings undermined calls from the pro-Union side to describe independence as “leaving the UK” or as “separation”.