Polling by three academics published in a blog for the London School of Economics found the wording of a question for indyref2 could sway voters to back independence or the union, depending on how the question is asked.
The academics tested three different formulations of a question that could appear on a ballot paper at a second independence referendum.
These included “do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country”, “should Scotland be an independent country”, or a “remain/leave” question similar to that used in the 2016 EU referendum.
The authors conclude the difference between the preferred question for pro-independence supporters (‘do you agree’) and the preferred option for unionists (‘remain/leave’) is “just about statistically significant” and that question choice could “define the whole debate”.
The blog concludes: “If voters are evenly divided, as they are currently on independence, then even seemingly innocuous matters such as the question options could change the course of a nation’s history.”
The blog was written by Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, Rob Johns, professor of politics at the University of Essex, and John Garry, professor of political behaviour at Queen’s University Belfast.
In total, 2,837 people were polled on the issue during May and June.
The blog states: “It seems the instincts of both nationalists and unionists about wordings are correct – each side’s preferred question is associated with higher support for their preferred outcome.
“The differences are certainly politically significant. On the remain/leave formulation, the independence side dips below its vote share in 2014. On the ‘do you agree’ formulation, it tops 50 per cent.”
The academics add that whether the question will have an impact on the final result is dependent on the “overall state of public opinion at the time”, but the findings highlight an “important structural feature” of referendums with major constitutional stakes.
Scotland in Union, a pro-union campaign group that regularly polls Scots on their independence referendum opinion based on a leave/remain question, has repeatedly called for any indyref2 to have a different question from the 2014 vote.
The group argues the Brexit vote set a precedent for constitutional questions and the Electoral Commission should be able to re-examine the question for a future indyref.
Pamela Nash, the campaign group’s chief executive, said: “The people of Scotland don’t want another divisive referendum any time soon and the SNP should drop its constitutional obsession and focus on what really matters to people.
“We know that, despite this, the SNP will never stop its negative campaign to pull communities apart and is desperate to use a biased question to help its cause.
“While the SNP wants to rig the debate, the rest of us want to move on from 2014.
“The simple truth is that the SNP proposal for separation is a choice between remaining part of the UK or leaving the UK – and any question should reflect that clearly.”