Experts slap down Salmond’s plan for a two-question Scottish independence referendum

A panel of experts has argued the referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent nation should be comprised of one clear question.

A panel of experts, commissioned by opposition parties at Holyrood, has argued the referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent nation should be comprised of one clear question.

Amidst an on-going belief Alex Salmond is keen on including an option for “Devo-Max” on the ballot paper, the commission, established by Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats north of the border and led by Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, a former Edinburgh University principal, has argued the clarity needed in the result necessitates a single, clear question.

Outlining the committee’s conclusion, Ron Gould, who in 2007 was appointed to lead a review of the Scottish elections fiasco, explained:

A second question makes it very difficult both for the voter to have a clear picture because there is a tendency to mix up the arguments as the parties do pros and cons.”

Dr Matt Qvortrup, a panel member from Cranfield University who specialises in referendums, continued:

“Every people has a right to self-determination, but that right can only be exercised if they are asked a clear and unequivocal question.”

Whilst it did not argue the SNP’s proposed wording of a referendum question – “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” – was not necessarily biased, the panel did come up with its own suggested wording, calling for a simple statement for voters to agree or disagree with:

“Scotland should be an independent state.”


See also:

Salmond must stop moving the goalposts on Scottish independence referendum 4 Jul 2012

Salmond’s independence campaign lurches from one problem to another 19 Jun 2012

Salmond quits stalling and finally launches independence campaign – as poll says ‘no’ 25 May 2012

MPs accuse SNP of “biased” independence question 8 May 2012

Salmond’s Scottish referendum is a textbook example of a leading question 27 Jan 2012


Calling for cross-party consensus, Lord Sutherland argued:

“It’s not rocket science; it’s common sense. A question should be clear, it should be understandable, it should be decisive, it should be unbiased and fair. And what’s more it should be all of those and be seen to be and accepted to be all of those by all of the participating parties.

“In other words, we’re looking for an agreement on what is clear, understandable, decisive, unbiased and fair, and it should be seen to be all of those things.”

Over the weekend, polling for the Mail on Sunday found 53% of Scots favoured a single question against 41% who favoured the idea of a second option to choose from.

Calling for the report to form the basis of cross-party consensus, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont responded:

“This independent body of work represents a real opportunity for all sides of this debate to reach a consensus on one of the fundamental parts of the referendum. The question has to be fair in order that the result properly reflects the will of the Scottish people and by endorsing the question put forward by the expert panel this ensures that no advantage can be gained from either side.

I hope that we reach agreement with the first minister on this at the next meeting of the party leaders and move on to the real debate about our country’s future.”

While Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson added:

“Surely Alex Salmond will agree his referendum on separation must produce a clear result and that is precisely what the expert panel’s simple, unbiased question was devised to deliver. It is obvious from the panel’s excellent work that a referendum is only effective when there is clarity on both the issue and the question, so this must rule out any notion of a further question on devolution which would produce nothing but confusion.

“The people of Scotland face the most important vote in 300 years and I am very grateful to the panel for producing a clear, fair and decisive single question, and I urge the first minister to accept and adopt the findings.”

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, meanwhile, argued the report was the only basis to reach a conclusion on the referendum:

“This panel is the only independent expert panel that has been established to draft the question for the referendum. We now know that Stephen Tierney, adviser to the first minister, has refused to draft a question for the Scottish government.

“So the proposal from this expert group will help us all reach a conclusion to this matter.”

And whilst pledging the government would consider the report’s findings, a spokesman for Bruce Crawford, the cabinet secretary for parliamentary business and government strategy, sought to make party political points, saying of the findings:

“A key point is that the panel’s conclusions differ fundamentally from the views previously expressed by all three opposition parties. Significantly, there is no reference to the United Kingdom in this proposed question, unlike in the poll commissioned by the anti-independence Better Together campaign as recently as May, and in stark contrast to the statements of all the opposition parties.

“That is appropriate, because people understand that the Queen will be head of state of an independent Scotland, and therefore Scotland and England will be united kingdoms.”

Urging the SNP to accept the report’s findings, the Scotsman’s leader column today argued:

As we head towards the historic vote on Scottish independence, perhaps we can all agree on one thing at the very least: the question put to the voters in the autumn of 2014 must be utterly clear in its meaning and intent, and there cannot be any suggestion that it favours either side of the argument. Only with this as a given can Scotland hope to have any kind of meaningful debate between now and polling day.

Without a degree of clarity about the question, and general agreement about its neutrality, there is little chance that the referendum campaign could begin to examine the very real issues at stake on their own terms. It would also be impossible to have a campaign conducted in good faith and without rancour. Which is why the work done by a triumvirate of eminent academics and electoral experts headed by Lord Sutherland of Houndwood (better known as Stewart Sutherland) is most welcome in the Scottish political debate.

Their conclusions, published yesterday, will go some way to dispelling much of the distracting smoke from the referendum battleground, enabling us all to see the real issues more clearly. When the Scottish government published its preferred wording for the referendum question earlier this year, there was praise for its brevity and simplicity – but there were also concerns that the phrasing could make voters more likely to plump for independence. Among experts in this field there now seems to be some agreement that this is indeed the case.

Faced with this view, the Scottish government should avoid the temptation to be drawn into a prolonged and sustained defence of its initial preferred wording. For the reasons expressed above, this would be ultimately futile and self-defeating.

Similarly, welcoming the report’s publication, The Herald sought to make comparisons between this and the referendum on the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, stating:

It is worth recalling the 1998 referendum in Northern Ireland on the Belfast Agreement. Voters were asked:

“Do you support the agreement set out in Command Paper 3883?”

Transparent it was not, and yet nobody argued that the electorate was unable to express its views clearly, or failed to understand what it was being asked.

Yesterday, the expert panel commissioned by pro-Union parties to examine the best phrasing for the question in Scotland’s independence referendum delivered its verdict.

Instead of the wording proposed by the Scottish Government, “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”, the panel suggested voters should be presented with the more neutral question:

“Should Scotland become an independent state?”

And required to tick a box marked “I agree” or “I do not agree”. The panel’s wording is simply more balanced.

First minister Alex Salmond’s “do you agree that…” was loaded. Psychologically, it implied the broad consensus lay in a given direction, and the anonymous voter was invited to concur. There is no good evidence that the wording of a question is influential in the outcome of a referendum. When the panel examined 74 past referendums from around the world, loaded questions appeared no more successful than more neutral phrasing. In fact, the evidence suggests a question which appears to prejudge the issue may be damaging to the interests of those supporting it.

This makes sense. For every impressionable voter steered towards a “yes” vote by an unbalanced question, there may be others who would react with anger and resistance, and cussedly vote “no”. The lesson from Northern Ireland is that voters well understand what they are being asked to decide on. More than anything this is an issue of perception, and it is here that the question matters. All parties are agreed that a clear and decisive result is essential, leaving aside for the moment the matter of whether there would be a second question on maximum devolution.

The SNP’s proposal so far has the smack of a phrasing geared for controversy, a choice intended more as an initial bargaining position than as a final submission.

The Electoral Commission has made it clear that it will only consider a form of words proposed by the relevant government, although whether that is the Scottish or UK administration has still to be decided. But the wording proposed yesterday is sensible and a useful contribution.

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18 Responses to “Experts slap down Salmond’s plan for a two-question Scottish independence referendum”

  1. Selohesra

    And I’m sure a panel of experts commisioned by the SNP could reach the opposite conclusion

  2. Gerard

    I think you’re missing something here, along with Bruce Crawford. Of course those against separation would prefer to use separation instead of independence but they asked some independent experts to come up with a question that is balanced and would deliver a decisive result – they did and although it isn’t biased in favour of those big bad unionists they have endorsed it. The SNP should do likewise rather than looking for agenda and conspiracies.
    Also if we are still in the UK when we leave the UK (?) does that mean Australia et al are in the UK. I think Mr Crawford needs to take a wee lie down as the SNP contrortions to make independence look like what we have now are going to do him an injury.

  3. John Ruddy

    Except two of these experts were favoured by the SNP only a few months ago… it will be interesting to see them cast these guys as being wrong, when we were being told before their word was law….

  4. cynicalhighlander

    I suppose it is slightly better than this one.

  5. Roger McCarthy

    But unless devo max is on the paper and passes we can probably kiss goodbye to the United Kingdom and to Labour’s chance of returning with a majority.

    So this may not save the union but doom it – as after another two years of the Tories and their Lib Dem Quisling’s rule at Westminster Scots faced with a simple in/out question may well feel that out is a safer choice than to forever trust their jobs and services to the whims of a right-wing English electorate.

    Devo max however would save the United Kingdom while finally forcing a new federal constitutional settlement on it.

  6. Roger McCarthy

    And the light purple on dark purple comments format is hideous and virtually unreadable – was it designed by someone who’s colourblind?

  7. Newsbot9

    Partly LFF, partly disqus.

  8. Newsbot9

    Or, say, a left-wing British party?

    And no, afaik devo max would grant the Scots indpendence+ – all the real benefits, but with a lot of funding from elsewhere and protection from any mistakes. I can’t support it – myself – outside a fully federal UK.

    There are arguments both ways, for dividing the vote for non-Unionist options, and for making a clear-line argument. This paper is, as LFF has said, a useful contribution.

  9. treborc

    The only way I can read it is to highlight the section, it’s murder for me. Dyslexic

  10. Newsbot9

    Yea, dyslexic too. I overrode the default page colours (and font).

    I’d not recommend personal my lashup to anyone mind you, I think greasemonkey for firefox is the easiest…

  11. RolftheGanger

    Read other reports. What the experts actually said was that wording differences make no practical difference in the outcome of referendums. What matters is the actual debate.

    This disappointed the Red-Blue Tory politicians, so they re-interpreted the experts’ view to support their preconceptions.

    Union ‘honesty’ at work again!

  12. Hearthammer

    Strange headline considering that the stance of the SNP is for a one question, independence or not, paper. Anybody with any gumption could easily check and find out what the policy is.

    Who wrote this piece. Johann Lament?

    Anyway, this whole blog piece is hopelessly skewed in favour of the London cause. The fact is that I, and many others like me, are socialists who want to see our country democratised by independence. This will annoy many people south of the border who wish to see every small nation independent EXCEPT Scotland, but there you are. Everybody can have an opinion but the only opinions that count will be those who are on the Scottish voting rolls.

  13. Gerard

    Just you keep believing everything Eck tells you. He is lying to his own membership – why? Simple really, he knows that you have no chance of realising your dream and so he keeps feeding you little scraps and you eat them up all day long. He is trying to make ‘independence’ mean something else. Bruce Crawford wants the unionists to spell out what devo-max is – no need, Salmond is doing that with his continual watering down of what separation is (with a little help from the SCVO). We do live in a democracy and your attempts to suggest we do not (part of the old we’re an oppressed people line you guys love to trot out) is tiresome at best and offensive at worst. We have democracy, we have self-determination – it’s just that the self-determination of the Scottish people isn’t what you want. The people of Scotland want to work in close partnership with their neighbours to make the whole of these islands a fairer place NOT just one bit of them. If you were a socialist you wouldn’t be following the narrow, insular, negative and regressive ideology of nationalism.

  14. Gerard

    No – what they said was they have found no evidence of it affecting the result but it is the perception of a referndum of this nature. The question, the organisation of the poll (etc) all have to be seen to be neutral and fair. If they thought it made no difference they would have just agreed with the wording of the SNP question. This is a neutral question and is much fairer – it will also lead to a clear winner.

  15. Gerard

    The electorate is not more right-wing in England than Scotland – attitudes are similar going by the recent attitudes survey.
    The idea that Scotland is a left-wing haven is a fallacy. Right-wing voters in Scotland are now anti-Tory and moved to the party who was best placed in their area to displace the Tories (in 1997 in particular) in the Central belt that was Labour, the north it was LDs or SNP and South it was Labour or LDs.

  16. Newsbot9

    Ah yes, your London Conspiracy. You’ve repeatedlu stated far right views, and called for isolationism.

  17. uglyfatbloke

    It all seems a bit suspect given that the unionist parties hand-picked their experts, so they are hardly an independent panel. .Is there a historian on the panel at all? Anyone with a background in Scottish constitutional practice? Apparently not or they would have been named.
    Every party – without exception – is trying to spin the question to advance their own position – fair enough since they are all politicians, but since none of the unionist parties wanted a referendum in the first place and I think (I’m not absolutely sure) that the gnats, greens and socialists etc. did get a majority of the vote at the last election, it does seem a bit rich for the unionists now to be presenting themselves as protectors of democracy. The gnats’ form of question is pretty clear to anyone who can read, so let’s get on with the campaign.

  18. Mike Mac Kinnon

    Labour had over 50 years to make a difference in Scotland. The only difference they made was to make life expency in parts of Scotland, the worst in the western world.
    And you think that Scots won’t vote for independence? I bet you didn’t think they’d vote for a majority SNP government either, eh?
    So you think we live in a democrcy where the country votes in ONE Tory and gets a Tory government? Some democracy!
    The Scottish government reversed Labour’s phony socialism by making education free for Scots kids and freezing the council tax. Something you can’t stand as it affects the Labour “snouts in troughs” brigade.
    Face it, Labour lost it’s way and is now a very shallow vestige of what it used to be. Socialsim was dropped in favour of appealing to “middle England” and anti-Scottish Labour are so disorganised, they can’t even vote for policies that would benefit them!
    Grow a spine and insist on Scottish Labour being able to make their own decisions instead of waiting for the nod from London!
    You are the typical Labour supporter who just sees Scotland as part of a failed state. Face it, the UK is finished and hopefully, dinosaurs like yourself will follow suit., if you fail to see Scotland as a nation within this failed experiement,,
    When we build a stronger, fairer Scotland, where people of every colour and ability will be helped to achieve their optimum, where will you be? Still adopting the pose of the whinging Pom?

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