Scottish independence: Posing a simple question proves far from easy

Danny Alexander, with sports minister Shona Robison at Glasgow's Commonwealth Arena
Danny Alexander, with sports minister Shona Robison at Glasgow's Commonwealth Arena
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POLLSTERS, academics and politicians are divided over the fairness of the SNP’s preferred referendum question, raising the prospect of it being thrown out by electoral chiefs in charge of overseeing the historic vote.

First Minister Alex Salmond announced on Wednesday that, under his plans, people in Scotland would be asked, “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country: yes or no”.

The wording prompted widespread claims the question would act as a “prompt” to voters to accept the Nationalist case and was therefore “biased” in favour of independence.

But other figures, including Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, backed the phrasing of the question, saying voters would be entirely able to comprehend the choice in front of them.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander told The Scotsman yesterday it was for the Electoral Commission to decide whether the wording of the question was fair.

But SNP figures declined to specify exactly what would happen if the Electoral Commission demanded changes, and opposition parties said they were growing “suspicious” its role as referee was already being “watered down”.

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said he backed the SNP’s intention to put a clear, straightforward question on independence.

He said: “It is an awful lot simpler than the previous question they suggested. The UK government asked for a straightforward question and this is a straightforward question.

“That said, I do think you can question the question.”

He added: “If you say ‘you agree with me, don’t you?’ then you are almost obliged to say ‘yes’ to that person. So it is questionable.”

Prof Curtice said the Scottish Government could change the question by simply asking people whether they “agree or disagree” with the plan for independence. The Scottish Government could also alter the question to ask people whether Scotland “should” become an independent country, he said. This format was used in the referendum for a North-East Regional Assembly in 1998.

But Chris Eynon, Scottish head of polling company TNS-BMRB, said: “As a professional market researcher, I regard the wording of ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ as leading rather than neutral and would not use this form of question in any survey or poll which I was constructing on these grounds.

“I understand why this is used – through the desire for a Yes/No answer – but it does not give a balanced option, as would ‘Do you agree or not…’.”

American academic Professor Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, said the question as it stood was “loaded and biased”.

He went on: “It sends you down a particular cognitive chute designed to locate agreements rather than disagreements. It’s called the one-sided question or a loaded question, and poll-takers and researchers have warned us against those types of questions.”

Prof Cialdini quoted research suggesting such a question could alter the outcome of the vote by as much as 9 per cent. He said: “The research suggests a simple fix to de-biasing these questions. Instead of saying ‘how much do you agree with this policy’, the survey-takers have to say ‘do you agree or disagree’ or ‘do you approve or disapprove’, and that produces an even-handed, un-biased approach.”

However, referendum expert Dr Matt Qvortrup approved of the SNP’s wording, pointing out that a question asking people to “agree” had been posed in Northern Ireland in 1998, over the Good Friday agreement.

“We have a precedent from Northern Ireland,” he said. “I don’t think it will be biased as such. The use of the word ‘agree’ is fairly common. I think the question the SNP has set out is pretty straightforward.”

The question was also supported by the Tories’ Ms Davidson, who told MSPs: “What the First Minister posited … is a fair and decisive legal question, which I welcome, and we now need to ensure that it is asked in a legal referendum.”

Other opposition party figures, such as former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, have claimed the question is “loaded”.

Meanwhile, in the House of Lords yesterday, former Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth accused Mr Salmond of putting forward a “rigged poll”. He said: “We have a rigged question, a rigged role for the regulator, a rigged expenses system and, on top of that, the question that there should be rigged franchise.”

In his interview with The Scotsman, Mr Alexander said it was not for politicians to decide on the nature of the question.

“It is for the Electoral Commission to give consideration, in due course, to the question put forward and to make recommendations as they would in any other referendum as to whether they think the wording is fair and appropriate,” he said.

“The fact that the Scottish Government has signalled they want a single ‘yes-no’ question on independence is real progress. The fact that they want the Electoral Commission involved is also real progress, because that ensures there is no jiggery-pokery behind the scenes. And I think the people of Scotland are well able to understand a clear, simple question on independence with a ‘yes-no’ answer.

“It is a matter for the Electoral Commission to decide on rather than for me to opine on.”

On Wednesday, Mr Salmond said the Electoral Commission would be given the authority to “assess” the proposed question. He also said he would be prepared to have further discussions with it on the way the vote was carried out.

However, confusion about the commission’s exact role has emerged, with its position over any possible vetoing of the question not being made clear in the SNP’s consultation paper.

A spokesman for the First Minister said last night: “We have established a question which could not be more simple, straightforward and fair. As we said, the Electoral Commission will obviously have a role in oversight of that and in analysis of all aspects of the question.

“As the First Minister said, it would be very difficult to argue that it is not simple and fair, but they [the commission] will have a role to play. I am not going to second guess that.”

That response drew an attack from Labour. Margaret Curran, the shadow Scottish secretary, said: “This is a serious point and shows why it is essential that the Electoral Commission has a formal role in setting the question. That is the current position, set out in statute, and any watering down of that function is highly suspicious. There must be complete confidence in the process and if people are raising issues about the wording of the question, it is a matter of principle that the Electoral Commission must be fully engaged.”

A spokesman for parliament minister Bruce Crawford said: “The Scottish Government’s referendum question couldn’t be more clear, straightforward and fair – the only other question needed is what are the anti-independence parties scared of? Having spent months demanding a simple question, as soon as they have one, they cry foul. They know they are losing the argument and they are now scared stiff of losing the referendum.”