Analysis: SNP wording meets international standard but lacks neutrality

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There are no prizes for guessing the respective positions of the combatants in the debate about the referendum question.

Alistair Darling called for “an alternative to the loaded referendum question”. And, not surprisingly, his view was rebutted by Nicola Sturgeon who retorted that the question proposed by the SNP government – “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” – is a fair one that “meets international standards”.

Formally speaking, the Deputy First Minister is correct. There have been several referendums using this wording in other countries. But this may not convince the Electoral Commission.

It is useful to consider the legal position and how it previously has been applied.

According to section 104(2) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000, the Electoral Commission “shall consider the wording of the referendum question, and shall publish a statement of any views of the commission as to the intelligibility of that question”

The Electoral Commission does not have the power to stop a question, but its view will be difficult to ignore. Before the 2011 referendum on the AV electoral system, the UK government’s proposed question was “Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the alternative-vote system instead of the current first-past-the-post system for electing members of Parliament to the House of Commons?”

The Electoral Commission rejected the proposed question.

It advised that voters were asked the question: “At present, the UK uses the first-past-the-post system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the alternative-vote system be used instead?” To which the voters could answer “yes” or “no”.

The reason for the rejection was that “the phrase do you want to ‘adopt’ could imply there was a problem with the current… system”. In the light of this precedent, it seems likely that the Electoral Commission will request that a more neutral question be asked in 2014.

All international evidence suggests that the wording of the question is of minor importance in referendums. Several referendums with the word “agree” have been lost, including the referendum in Quebec in 1995.

The proposed question is fair by international standards, but politically speaking, the SNP administration cannot ignore the likely recommendation of the Electoral Commission.

They will be well advised to quietly accept it.

l Dr Matt Qvortrup is a psephologist at Cranfield University