As the Scottish government’s consultation on an independence referendum enters its final week, MPs have condemned the SNP’s proposed question as being “biased”.
As the Scottish government’s consultation on an independence referendum enters its final week, the cross-party Scottish affairs select committee has condemned the SNP administration’s proposed question as being “biased”.
In January, Alex Salmond published the proposed wording for a referendum, which read:
“Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”
At the time, writing for Left Foot Forward, Alex Hern noted:
As many picked up on, this question is may be “simple, straightforward and clear”, but it’s not quite as fair as Salmond suggests it is.
By phrasing the question as “do you agree…” rather than the more neutral options of “do you agree or disagree…” or simply using “should”, there is likely to be a small but significant increase in the amount of people voting yes.
Hern’s assertions have now been supported by Westminster’s Scottish affairs select committee in a report (pdf) looking at the referendum question published today.
Although the SNP have officially boycotted the committee’s evidence sessions in a belief it is not its place to be looking into the issue, the committee concludes:
Based on the evidence we have received, we have no choice but to conclude that the question currently proposed by the Scottish government is biased in that it tends to lead the respondent towards the answer “yes”.
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The evidence supporting the committee’s assertion is twofold.
Firstly, polling by Lord Ashcroft in February; outlining the key findings on his blog at the time, he explained:
When we asked if they agreed that Scotland should be an independent country, as Mr Salmond intends to do, 41% of Scots answered “yes”, and 59% “no”.
Alongside this, to a separate sample, we asked a question with a subtle but important difference: “Do you agree or disagree that Scotland should be an independent country?” This time, 39% agreed, and 61% disagreed. Not a huge shift (indeed the change in both scores is within the margin of error) but if accurate this represents a four-point difference in the margin between union and independence.
It is easy to see how two words – “or disagree” – could, in a close campaign, decide the fate of a nation. Would it be too cynical to suppose this is why Mr Salmond left them out?
The second plank of evidence supporting the committee’s conclusion comes from a string of seasoned pollsters, all of whom agree the proposed wording is leading.
It quotes the following:
“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.” – Peter Kellner, president of YouGov
“The question presented beginning “Do you agree” fundamentally cannot be balanced if it excludes the words “or disagree”. That is my primary starting point and fundamental objection to it.” – Martin Boon, head of social and government research at ICM Research
“In the way it is construed, I do agree it is a biased [question] because it does not present any of the alternatives.” – Andrew Hawkins, chairman of ComRes
The committee went on to argue the Electoral Commission should have overall responsibility for the conduct of the referendum and that no question should be put to the people until the commission was completely satisfied with it.
Publishing the report, committee Chairman, Labour MP Ian Davidson, argued:
“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.”
Responding for the Scottish government, however, Bruce Crawford, Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary business sought, to discredit the committee’s recommendations, declaring:
“This exercise is devoid of credibility.
“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.”
The report comes as the Sunday Herald reported over the weekend Alex Salmond will formally launch the “Yes to Independence” campaign on May 25th.