Eddie Barnes: Question gives both sides of the referendum debate plenty to chew over

THERE are those who favour two questions. There are those who want just one. And then there is Lord Sutherland’s expert panel which suggests no question at all.

The panel believes that by the time 2014 comes around and the country has exhausted itself after two and half years of tortured debate, all that is necessary is for weary voters to be asked to agree or disagree with the statement: “Scotland should become an independent state”. The phraseology may seem familiar. Far from proposing a pro-Unionist question to order, the panel came up with a formula that more than closely resembles the SNP’s own favoured option “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”).

Given that research published yesterday by Dr Matt Qvotrup disputes that the slant of a question makes much of a difference to the result anyway – a highly questionable claim – it might seem that there is precious little point in not all agreeing. But while the six-word solution may seem simple, it contains plenty for each side in the debate to chew over.

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Lord Sutherland briskly dismissed the use of the word “separation” (living in the Borders, he noted how he did his shopping in Berwick). For the pro-Union side which is eager to characterise independence in the language of divorce, that may prompt some reflection. For the other side, Lord Sutherland and Ron Gould’s arguments against holding a two-question referendum, containing a “devo-max” option, also brings home difficulties Alex Salmond may face should he keep the idea of a double-header alive.

The First Minister will now weigh up how to respond to his pro-Union opponents over the findings. He is under no obligation to endorse Lord Sutherland’s formula; the experts agreed yesterday that it is for Scottish Government to propose the question and for the Electoral Commission then to weigh it up.

The SNP’s thumping majority at Holyrood means he has the political mandate to act. But, as Lord Sutherland noted yesterday, given the importance of gaining broad agreement on the rules of the game to ensure a good, clean fight, a decision to press ahead against the wishes of his opponents carries risks.