Maybe the referendum question is not so simple

I may have spoken too soon about the clarity of Alex Salmond’s preferred  referendum question : do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?  The Today programme took the trouble to ask a professor in Arizona who had never heard of Big Eck if the wording was fair.  Sure, it was completely loaded he said. To be fair, the question had to be balanced with a “or not “ in some form. Closer to home the Times reports (£) that elder Scottish statesmen in both main parties agree. And they’re supported by a leading pollster.

   Alistair Darling, the former Labour Chancellor and an Edinburgh MP, said: “The question is loaded. He is inviting people to endorse the separation of a successful independent nation. He is not asking if you want to remain part of the United Kingdom, which I would prefer. It is asking for trouble and if he tries to push through unfair wording someone will go to the Court of Session [Scotland’s highest court].

“It’s typical of Salmond, who wants to call the shots on the rules, the conduct, the wording and ultimately what the result means.”

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Scottish Secretary, also attacked the question. “That can mean all sorts of things to different people. What this issue is about, and I don’t think Alex Salmond would deny this, is he wants Scotland, after 300 years, to leave the United Kingdom. That’s not an emotive phrase, it’s a factual point. So by saying, ‘Scotland, should it leave the United Kingdom, become an independent country’ then people can come to a clear and simple response on that fundamental question.”

Rick Nye, director of pollster Populus, said: “The statement begs all sorts of questions. It does not ask whether you ‘agree or disagree’ with the statement, leaving hanging the idea that invites agreement. It is therefore phrased in a way that invites the answer ‘yes’. It also leaves unclear what an ‘independent country’ might be. And it does not mention the United Kingdom.”

The Scotsman didn’t seem to notice the dissent.

Mr Salmond’s single question on independence was supported by constitutional experts last night. The UK government also welcomed the clarity of the question he proposes….He then side-stepped questions over how he would judge whether or not such an option had support or not. UK government figures last night suggested the vagueness over a “devo-max” option meant it was likely to be binned, as they want.

Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland’s Political Editor has a different take on the referendum questions, concentrating on how the SNP might like to deal with a devo max option.

Scottish Ministers are no longer simply talking of putting that devo max question in sequence with independence – such that one builds upon the other. That option was much criticised by those who said that devo max could massively outpoll independence – and yet both would go ahead if independence managed to achieve 51 per cent support…. Now, it is conceivable that devo max might be placed in competition with independence, perhaps with a paving opening question asking whether folk want change at all. That would allow adherence to the status quo to be tracked.

Suspicions were raised when Salmond appeared in his Holyrood statement  to rule out a role for the Electoral Commission is reviewing the questions. But he seemed to correct this later at the Edinburgh Castle launch of his campaign

“The Electoral Commission will have a role in assessing the questions, can I make that clear. I apologise if the process hasn’t been fully spelt out,” he said. But he would not say whether it would be allowed a veto over his preferred question.

Meanwhile the Guardian‘s Martin Kettle has no doubt what Salmond is really about. I’m glad someone knows.

Everything about Salmond’s emollient Hugo Young lecture in London this week, and everything about the proposals he launched in Edinburgh today in rather feistier language, points to an identical conclusion. The logic and goal of his strategy is not Scottish independence but Scottish home rule within the United Kingdom.




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