A Dangerous Question

This week we consider the referendum question proposed by the Scottish Government:-

“Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? ”

In our response to its consultation we said:-

“A single straightforward question should be asked, agreed with the Electoral Commission and consulted over by a committee of unbiased experts – with a simple, unbiased and unambiguous yes/no response invited. The current question strikes of bias and is an attempt to appeal to emotions. A more straightforward and unbiased question would be “Do you want Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom?” “

Indeed how you ask a question and its context are vitally important.

A wife, when jokingly asked if she would like to trade in her husband for next year’s model, will nine times out of ten laughingly reply in the affirmative.

“Yes please!”

That is a quite different question from being asked, “Do you want a divorce?” and yet essentially a “yes” to both questions would lead to the same outcome if binding.

It is also essential to fully understand the ramifications of a question asked. A question can be interpreted quite differently by different people and should be carefully considered.

Many Scots could be caught up in a Braveheart romantic concept of what an independent Scotland would be like and not realise until too late that the reality of how this unfolds might be quite different from the dream – especially when ties are cut with the rest of the UK.

“I never knew that would happen if we became independent…..”

The fantasy is often broken by reality.

One major weakness, perceived by many, of the Scottish Government’s proposed question is that it fails to spell out to voters that a “yes” will actually result in Scotland leaving the UK and what the potential repercussions of that would be.

Indeed Alex Salmond has confused the issue by insisting that Independence wouldn’t actually mean leaving the United Kingdom because the United Kingdom is a Union of Crowns and the Queen would still be Head of State of an independent Scotland.

However the reality would be quite different. Independence is still independence and a republican majority in Scotland could easily dissolve a Union of Crowns.

And then there is the more fundamental issue of fairness…..?

The question of fairness has already stirred up a bit of a storm and quite rightly so. Resolving this storm however is fundamental to the interests of both campaigns – for and against the union.

When considering this critical issue there must not even be the slightest suggestion that the public could be misled in any way. Indeed, any subliminal influence or phraseology thought to lead to a particular answer must be removed without question- however slight the effect of leaving it in might be.

“Would you like to live somewhere warm and sunny?” is a quite different question from, “Would you like to emigrate?” and yet they are essentially two ways of looking at the same issue. In our opinion they would get quite different responses.

We also consider the use of the word “agree” as problematic. It appeals to a sense of “wanting to belong” and in our opinion lends itself to both a positive response and, potentially, a lack of consideration of the actual issues involved – triggered by a sense of a voter not wanting to be an “outsider”.

Our problem with the word “agree” is that it appeals to inclusivity and to the same sense of “wanting to belong” that the Facebook “like” appeals to. Indeed if you look at some invitations to “like” on Facebook you will be amazed at what people are actually prepared to “like”. There are no real consequences to liking some pretty controversial stuff on Facebook. Unfortunately the same will not be the case when “agreeing” to Independence. There will be consequences to a “like” on Independence.

Following on from this, a question like “Do you agree that Councils should maintain their current level of services?” would evoke quite a difference response from that given if people were asked, “Should local taxes be raised to allow the current level of Council services to continue?” Yet these are simply two different ways of looking at the same issue and asking a question on it.

We reiterate that the question needs to be carefully considered and it is critical that it is fair. It needs to be unbiased, unambiguous and clear.

The Scottish Affairs Committee has already criticised the Scottish Government’s proposed question for the Scottish independence referendum. They conclude that it is “biased in that it tends to lead the respondent towards the answer ‘yes’.”

Alistair Darling, other pro-union politicians, academics and a number of senior opinion pollsters and prominent election analysts have all reached the same conclusion.

The Electoral Commission in an unusually strong statement has challenged the Scottish Government to test the referendum question or risk accusations that it is rigging the poll with a “slanted” question. Encouragingly it looks like the Scottish Government will at least heed this.

The Commission has also said that thorough, independent scrutiny of any question in the referendum is essential to ensure it is clear, fair and neutral and to guarantee that the final result is reliable.

We reiterate that the question needs to be carefully considered and it is critical that it is fair. It needs to be unbiased, unambiguous and clear.