Professor John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, said proposals for a “second question” offering far more powers for the Scottish parliament had so far been bogged down by fears it would lead to an inconclusive result, leaving the country trapped in constitutional fog.
Addressing delegates at The Scotsman’s conference on the mechanics of the historic vote, he put forward a new formula which, he said, could allow all three options to be put, while guaranteeing a clear result.
In a first question, people would be asked the SNP’s question of choice: “Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country?”
A second question would then ask people, if the answer to the first question turned out to be “no”, would they want the Scottish Parliament to run far more tax affairs, or to keep the status quo.
As the second question would only apply in the event of a “no” to independence, Professor Curtice said the formula would solve “the Willie Rennie problem” – a reference to the Scottish LibDem leader who has asked what would happen in a two-question referendum if 51 per cent backed independence and 95 per cent backed “devo-max”.
Prof Curtice said the difficulty faced in Scotland was that opinion was currently split evenly over whether it should stay put, push for independence, or seek autonomy within the UK.
He said: “The brutal truth is that no single one of the three principle options commands the majority support of the public when you ask them.”
Support for independence, he said, had remained static despite the huge publicity on the referendum over the last few weeks – with the percentage of committed voters backing it remaining stuck on 40 per cent.
He said the danger now was that a straight yes-no question would fail to resolve the country’s constitutional agonising.