Scottish independence: MPs brand SNP’s referendum wording ‘biased’

Labour: SNP are skewing referendum debate with 'pop-ups'. Picture: Jane Barlow
Labour: SNP are skewing referendum debate with 'pop-ups'. Picture: Jane Barlow
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FIRST Minister Alex Salmond’s preferred wording for the independence referendum question is “unfair” and “biased” towards a Yes vote, according to a damning report by MPs.

The Scottish affairs select committee called on all parties to come together immediately to draft a “clear and neutral” form of words to be put through “exhaustive” testing by the Electoral Commission.

Read the full Scottish affairs select committee report here

The committee, which is boycotted by the SNP, drew on comments and evidence from a range of independent experts who were highly critical of the Scottish Government’s proposed wording, which is: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

But the interim report – titled “Do you agree that this is a biased question?” and part of wider inquiry into “a referendum on Scottish separation” – was dismissed by the SNP as “devoid of credibility”.

Those consulted by the committee included referendum expert Dr Matt Qvortrup, “eminent” YouGov pollster Peter Kellner, “distinguished constitutionalist” Vernon Bogdanor and constitutional theoretician Stephen Tierney. Among the institutions cited by MPs were the Electoral Commission, Ipsos Mori, the NOtoAV Campaign, ICM Research, ComRes and the Electoral Reform Society.

The committee said the evidence it had received from these experts and organisations “unanimously” viewed the question as “leading and unfair” and “biased towards a yes answer”.

The report quoted Mr Kellner telling MPs: “As a pollster, I try to avoid attitudinal questions to which the answers are yes or no. I would say as a pollster, ‘Do you agree or disagree?’ You offer both options.”

Matthew Elliott, from the NOtoAV campaign, told them: “If you asked a pollster to ask that sort of question, they would say you were trying to rig the poll. It is a leading question.”

ComRes chairman Andrew Hawkins said: “In the way it is construed, I do agree it is a biased [question] because it does not present any of the alternatives.”

Martin Boon, of ICM Research, told the committee the wording of the question could have “a significant effect on the outcome”, while Mr Kellner said an opinion poll question and a referendum question should be seen as very different.

The MPs’ report drew heavily on a YouGov survey of 3,900 Scottish adults in February commissioned by Conservative donor Lord Ashcroft, which suggested the wording of the question was vital to the outcome.

Participants were asked three questions. For the SNP’s preferred question – “Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?” – the responses were 41 per cent Yes and 59 No.

When the words “or disagree” were added, the result changed to 39 per cent agree and 61 per cent disagree.

And when the question was changed to “Should Scotland become an independent country or should it remain part of the United Kingdom?” the responses changed to 33 per cent backing independence and 67 per cent saying No.

The committee report stated: “Based on the evidence, we have no choice but to conclude that the question Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? is biased.

“Experts told us that this was a leading question, biased towards a Yes answer. This is important because wording can affect the result of a referendum.

“This referendum must be, and be seen to be, fair and acceptable to those on both sides of the argument. It is essential that the result commands wide acceptance.”

It went on: “It is now widely agreed that the Electoral Commission is the appropriate body to regulate a referendum and ensure that the wording of the question is clear and fair.

“This means an exhaustive process of testing of proposed words and how the options are put to the voters. This will take some time, and therefore it must be started soon.

“It need not wait until a referendum bill is drafted. Debate needs to move on to the policies and issues of separation.”

The committee’s Labour chairman, Ian Davidson MP, said: “It is now beyond doubt that the question proposed by the Scottish Government is biased.

“A range of witnesses, with different backgrounds and from different sides of past referenda, were unanimous in the opinion that the question, as currently proposed by the Scottish Government, is not fair.

“We cannot have a contest in which separatists are both player and referee. That goes against every notion of fairness and transparency.

“It must be for the Electoral Commission, an experienced and neutral body, to oversee the process and, crucially, to test alternative questions and words to make sure that any referendum question will be clearly understood.”

Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw said: “This interim report adds compelling testimony to support what most Scots instinctively knew – that Alex Salmond’s proposed referendum question was unfair and biased. This decision is too important for the final question to be set at the whim of any one politician – it must be simple, fair and judged to be both by the Electoral Commission.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “There is no doubt that Alex Salmond has won the right to run a referendum but not the right to rig the question.

“For this important decision, we need to have a question that doesn’t lead people in one direction or the other and delivers a result that everybody can agree to.”

The SNP has previously accused the Scottish affairs select committee itself of bias. Its only SNP member, the Banff and Buchan MP Eilidh Whiteford, has withdrawn from participating on it.

She has refused to participate in the committee since alleging the chairman, Mr Davidson, told her she would be “getting a doing”, during a private session in October last year.

Her political opponents have claimed her refusal to participate is because she came under pressure from the SNP to quit once the inquiry into the referendum had been launched.

The SNP administration put its proposed referendum question out to public consultation in January, with the deadline for responses this Friday.

The Scottish Government’s parliamentary business secretary Bruce Crawford said of the committee report: “This exercise is devoid of credibility. The real issue is that Scotland needs job-creating powers to grow the economy and boost employment.

“The Scottish Government’s proposed referendum question is straightforward and fair – as acknowledged by Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson – and the ‘agree’ formulation was also used in Labour’s 1997 devolution referendum, and is the same wording used by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition for local referendums in England.

“As set out in the consultation document, the ballot paper will be subject to testing during autumn and winter this year, and we will be delighted to receive advice from the Electoral Commission and other electoral professionals.”