Biased or not biased? That is the question

Houses of Parliament, London Picture: Brendan and Ruth McCartney
Houses of Parliament, London Picture: Brendan and Ruth McCartney

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

Is this question biased, leading and unfair? The Scottish Affairs Committee of the House of Commons certainly thinks so.

The committee published a report yesterday condemning this question (the Scottish government’s choice of question) and calling for a new, more balanced question to be put to the Scottish people in the referendum.

The Nationalists could point out – with some justification – that there appears to be a clear bias on the part of the committee. All the committee members who compiled the report come from Unionist parties.

The one SNP MP on the committee, Eilidh Whiteford, is boycotting the committee after her high-profile falling out with the Labour chairman, Ian Davidson.

But just because the committee is made up entirely of Unionists and even though it does appear to have gone out of its way to make a political point, that does not mean that its work can, or should, be ignored.

On the contrary, the work of the committee should be studied by everyone who has an interest in the referendum because it contains some really important evidence about questions and how we phrase them.

Forget about Mr Davidson’s over-the-top rhetoric when he published the report about Alex Salmond trying to both a player and the referee. Forget too about the blunt accusations of bias which the committee made yesterday and concentrate instead on the core evidence, hidden inside the report, which the committee compiled.

The committee commissioned a market research company to conduct a poll four times bigger than usual newspaper opinion polls. A total of 3,900 Scottish adults were consulted for what, in anyone’s terms, is a pretty good representative sample of Scottish opinion.

These voters were presented with three questions. The first was the SNP’s preferred option: “Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?”. A second option gave the respondents the chance to “disagree” as well as “agree”: “Do you agree or disagree that Scotland should become an independent country?”

But voters were also given a third option which gave equal weight to independence and the Union: “Should Scotland become an independent country or should it remain part of the United Kingdom?”

When the SNP’s chosen question was asked, support for independence was recorded at 41 per cent in favour and 59 per cent against. When voters were given the option of agreeing or disagreeing, support for independence went down to 39 per cent in favour and 61 per cent against.

Then, when the alternative option was offered in the third option, support for independence went down again, to 33 per cent, with 67 per cent against.

Everyone in politics knows that, if independence is up at about 41 per cent in the polls, the SNP has a decent chance of success, if only for reasons of turnout.

Those 41 per cent of Scots who want independence are much more likely to turn out and vote in the referendum for a change they want to effect than are the majority to defend the status quo.

So, if the SNP’s own question is asked, independence is clearly within reach – and don’t forget this is a comprehensive survey, much bigger than most polls done for news outlets.

At the heart of the dispute over the SNP’s question is the use of the word “agree” without any alternative proposition. That formulation is accepted as being biased and leading, so much so that the committee published an extract from a GCSE paper where students were asked to comment on the use of the word “agree” in a sample question and explain why it was biased.

If it is biased enough to be used as an example for schoolchildren, then it is clearly too biased to be used in the referendum, the committee members claimed.

And they have a point. Mr Salmond and his advisers may complain about the make-up of the committee and the political nature of its report, but they should not ignore the key conclusion that their chosen question is leading.

This is crucially important to the independence cause and the smarter Nationalists realise it. They know that if there is any dubiety over the fairness of the question and the result is close, then there will always be resentment and ill-feeling over the result and that is the one thing an independent Scotland does not need.

If Scotland is to become independent, then everyone has to have faith in the decision and the way it was made: that is imperative. If there are any Nationalists out there who still don’t see that, then they should turn this situation around.

How would they feel if the UK government proposed a referendum with the question: “Do you agree that Scotland should stay part of the United Kingdom?” Given the poll evidence, if that question was asked, independence would be lucky to secure 30 per cent support. And, if that question was asked, Nationalists everywhere would object – with good reason.

The Scottish Affairs Committee may be made up entirely of unionists, and party political ones at that. The SNP may object to the committee’s findings and the way it expressed them, but what they shouldn’t do is ignore the evidence.

This evidence represents the best analysis we have had to date into the question Mr Salmond wants to put before us – and, according to the polling evidence, a whole legion of experts and a quite pertinent GSCE paper, that question is biased and leading.

If the Nationalists are so convinced of their case, then let it be put to the people clearly, fairly and unambiguously. That means, at the very least, allowing voters to “disagree” as well as “agree” and possibly even to vote for an alternative scenario of staying in the Union, rather than just having to make a decision on independence.

And, in what has become a depressingly familiar refrain – this is too important to be mucked up with point-scoring and slyly taken advantages.

The referendum should be fair, open and transparent and as the Scottish Affairs Committee – for all its failings – has shown, the Scottish government’s choice of question just does not meet those principles.

  • ALL possible questions are biased one way or the other. And since the SNP are the only party with a mandate to hold a referendum at all, they can ask any question they like.

    • XenonTheMegablast

      No, the question has to be fair. The SNP (or more precisely, the government in Holyrood) have a mandate to hold a referendum on Scottish independence.
       They do not have a mandate to dictate the exact phrasing of the question, especially as they have a vested interest in influencing the outcome.

      • Ged Mitchell

        So, who has the authority to ask such a question; Westminster? Surely Westminster has a vested interest as well? So, how about the UN or, even better still, why not look at the question asked when the Scots were given the chance to vote for a parliament.

        • XenonTheMegablast

          I agree – the question needs to be put together by a non-involved third party. Even if the SNP posited a wholly neutral question, there would still be people who argued that it was biased, so for the avoidance of all doubt, we should get someone else to design it. It can’t be that difficult!

      • HenBroon

         Stop making stuff up, each post you make confirms you are a wee daftie, whose nicked his mummy’s lap top.

  • Airtteth

    “A total of 3,900 Scottish adults were consulted” – presumably that means 1,300 different individuals per question.  Anyone know if these different results are statistically significant?
    When the differences between a poll and a referendum are taken into account, are they still significant?

    I understand the SNP have agreed that the Electoral Commission will have
    exactly the same role in 2014 referendum as they do in all other UK
    referendums, including reviewing, testing and commenting on the
    question, so why has this even been raised as an issue at this point in

    Having watched the Westminster committee take evidence and seen the way they lead and manipulate the witnesses to provide the answer the unionist committee want, and given the bias, deceit and treachery by Westminster against the people of Scotland and their independence during (and since) the 1979 referendum, how can anyone believe them on any matter relating to the 2014 referendum.

    This latest accusation of vote rigging is just more of the same disinformation and political trouble-making by Westminster aimed at keeping the people of Scotland ignorant.

    • XenonTheMegablast

      I’ve worked as a statistician in the past. It is hard to tell statistical significance without a bit more detail, but – a rough estimate based on the figures provided suggest that the statistical significance level would be greater than about 2% (taking the 39% agree case as the starting point). So its not clear that there is a significant difference between the first two forms of the question, but there may have been with the third.

  • The significance of the SAC in any shape or form is negligible – apart from its defined task to monitor the operation of the Secretary of State for Scotland and the impact of UK Government policy on Scottish issues (which it has failed miserably to do).

    According to Hansard, Comittee reports are not binding on the UK Government Department’s they are supposed to hold to account. Since the Scottish Government is out with the remit of SAC, any SAC report can be ignored on both this count and even if the Scottish Government was a department of the UK Government it is not binding obnly advisory.

    In other words SAC is all about gum bumping and jollies for MPs at the Scottish taxpayer’s expense. The costs of SAC are apparently part of the deductions from Scotland’s pocket money, along with that other great supporter of Scotland, the Secretary of State for Scotland and their department and yet this is part of the subsidy the UK gives Scotland which never leaves Westminster or Whitehall, along with defence, welfare or court fines. ….. but is counted as money ‘going to Scotland’. Reminiscent of the Glasgow Ranger’s School of Accounting – assett stripping ‘smoke and mirrors’ by their regime over the last decade and more.

    PS: The SNP member of the committee was verbally, in front of other committee members, threatened with a ‘doing’ by Ian Davidson MP, he of the Eric Joyce school of politics, it was not a ‘falling out’ it was a open threat of violence.

  • Maidmarrion

    “A second option gave the respondents the chance to “disagree” as well as “agree”: “Do you agree or disagree that Scotland should become an independent country?”
    But voters were also given a third option which gave equal weight to independence and the Union: “Should Scotland become an independent country or should it remain part of the United Kingdom?””
    Yes /no answer???

    I take it the writer has realised that neither of these questions is answerable?
    Utterly shocking that this kind of obfuscation is promoted by the Westminster cabal and not challenged by any journalist worth their salt.

    The only possible question is ,

    Do you want Scotland to be independent ? Yes or No

    • XenonTheMegablast

      I think the third question was not a Yes / No answer. It was an option – ‘Should Scotland be an independent country’ or ‘should it remain part of the United Kingdom’.

      So you choose one of the options (by ticking a box next to it)

      It seems answerable enough?

      • Maidmarrion

        “But voters were also given a third option which gave equal weight to independence and the Union: “Should Scotland become an independent country or should it remain part of the United Kingdom?”
         Yes/No answer to which is confusing obfuscation and that anyone can hold the results up as worthy is beyond ridicule. 

        Are you suggesting it was set out differently from  Mr Macdonell, as in a two  statement question,
        ” Should Scotland be independent?” Yes/No
        ” Should Scotland remain part of the UK?”Yes/No ??

        Either way I think a simple,

        Do you want Scotland to be independent ? Yes/No”  is far and away the easiest,and least open to interpretation.

  • Hamish Mcdonnell said -‘But just because the committee is made up entirely of Unionists and even though it does appear to have gone out of its way to make a political point, that does not mean that its work can, or should, be ignored.’

    No, that’s exactly what it means.  

    Westminster and their committees, have no right to dictate terms on a referendum on independence.  

    You do not ask the parliament you are seeking to secede from for permission to hold a referendum. 

    It’s a ludicrous notion – two countries in a treaty, and one is not allowed a vote on independence without the ‘legal’ permission of the other? This is the outrageous stance the Unionists are taking.  

    I couldn’t care less about ‘reserved issues’  ‘consitiutional law’ etc.   A real reserved issue in International Law is the ability for a nation to choose self- determination if it so wishes, without outside interference.  

    If the Unionists wanted a referendum, they should have made a pledge during the election campaign, and/or included it in their Manifestos.  They were entirely opposed to any referendum before 2011, and made it very clear that they would block any attempt by the Minority SNP government to hold one.

    Now they want to dictate the timing, wording, they want a Westminster accountable commission to run it, oh, and they want it as soon as possible.

    The Scots should tell them to spin.

    It’s all a bit depressing really. The irony of this whole thing is that it says more about the Unionist politicians,and their agenda, than anything the SNP does.  

    For an Englishman like myself, I honestly wonder when London politics can ever evolve post-imperialism . Right now they seem unable to.

    • XenonTheMegablast

      Scotland is part of the United Kingdom – and is bound by the laws of the United Kingdom – and ultimately, is governed by Westminster. The referendum seeks to determine whether this state of affairs should continue – it is not an excuse to start ignoring the law.

      There is no reason why you cannot hold a referendum on independence or secession etc – in an orderly fashion, with the agreement of the country you are seeking to leave. Czechoslvakia did – and it has worked well, with little rancour on either side. Unilateral secession tends to create ill will, so I think the current approach – of seeking a formula for a referendum that both Westminster and Holyrood agree on – is worth pursuing.

      In any case, I doubt it makes much difference what question is asked. Scots know what they are voting on. I would go with ‘Should Scotland become an independent country and leave the United Kingdom’ (yes / No) – or some variant thereof.

      • No one is ignoring the law.  Well, actually Westminster might be pushing it a bit, in their attempt to manipulate the referendum

        Like it or not, the SNP and the Scottish parliament has the mandate for the referendum AND it’s form. The reality is that the SNP were elected on this basis.  

        Westminster has no mandate for a referendum, because none of it’s parties offered one, and even more, actively tried to prevent one prior to 2011.  

        They also have no mandate for dictating terms of a referendum, for the same reasons.

        It’s a hard one for London to swallow, but really, they have to leave this one up to the Scots, because this is their game.  They can try to achieve a consensus, and they can campaign to keep the union, but they cannot dictate terms on the independence question. There is dozens of historical precedents here, and the unionists would be wise to heed them. 

        Whether they play fair is another matter, though.  

         I fear for the UK if the Scots lose the referendum,  because a lot of people north of the border might well feel cheated by the machinations of Westminster.  They will be asking themselves ‘ what do we have to do?’ 

         A disunited Kingdom, which is almost inevitable after a No vote, is in no-ones interests.
         To be honest I think the union is reaching end game sooner or slightly later, anyway; and it’s for the best.

        • XenonTheMegablast

          I disagree – ultimately it would take an act of Westminster for Scotland to become independent, within the laws of Great Britain as they stand. Westminsters decision would be heavily influenced by the results of a Scottish referendum, but – unless Westminster agreed – the referendum itself would not be legally binding.

          My view is that it is perfectly possible to hold a referendum and for Westminster to accept the result without going outside of the law. Which would be my preferred result – but to do this will involve getting Westminsters agreement to respect the result of the referendum – which would (in theory) involve taking account of Westminster’s opinion on the wording itself.

          The alternative – ignore Westminster, have a referendum, declare independence unilaterally and take it from there etc – is certainly feasible – the USA did it – but not (in my opinion) the optimum route to independence, because we will have to negotiate with Westminster on a large number of issues – and it would be preferable to do so with Westminster accepting that the referendum was a valid one.

      • Ged Mitchell

        You seem to be under the misapprehension that Scotland is not a sovereign country and cannot withdraw from the treaty which created the parliament in Westminster. If you care to check you will find that even after the union of the parliaments the Scottish parliament was only put in abeyance and not dissolved. Therefore the whole premise of your argument that Scotland is ONLY governed by Westminster is black ops propaganda put about by the Unionists. The fact is that we can withdraw from the treaty any time it suits us and it has nothing to do with Westminster. That’s like saying that the UK has no right to withdraw from NATO, the UN or the multitude of other treaties that we have signed unless the other signatories agree to it. I know what the UK would say to that if it made up its mind to leave any of these organisations. Therefore, what do you think the democratically elected government of Scotland should do when it wants to ask a question of its own citizens? Do as the UK would do in a similar circumstance or do as the UK tells us?

        • XenonTheMegablast

          Scotland is not a sovereign country. Whether it should be is the point of the referendum. Sovereign countries control their own tax rates and armed forces. If I am under a misapprehension, then, in my defence, it is an extremely common one.

          But give me a source to check your assertion and I will gladly have a look. My understanding of the Acts of Union is that article 3 dissolved the two parliaments and created a new one. I am not even sure it is possible for a parliament to be held in abeyance – once one has been dissolved, the monarch needs to create a new one (which happens in the UK every 5 years or so).

          • Ged Mitchell
          • Ged Mitchell

            Scotland is a sovereign country just like England. All that happened was that there was an  agreement to merge the parliaments. This sovereignty can be exercised at any time by either Scotland or England to break the treaty that binds them. The sovereignty of Scotland & England has not disappeared, it is still there, but under the treaty of the Union of the Parliaments.

  • Kay

    The other questions proposed here are open to interpretation – yes, you agree or no you disagree? The question put forward by the Scottish government is the only question where one can unequivocably interpret the answer. Not a question of bias but of logic.

  • john__

    Why do commentators continue to completely miss the point that these “surveys” were done face to face, where the question is unknown beforehand, where as any referendum will have the question known well in advance, so they will go into the booth with an answer prepared. they will not look at the question. There will also be noone looking on with whom you might want to “agree”. these are two completely different psychological situations, and not relevant to each other.

    Just to prove the point: How many people know the question that was on the council ballot paper? You just look for the name and put a number next to it.


  • bellebrise

    The holding of a referendum is unnecessary.  Any country may declare independence on the basis of an elected majority.  Check out the UN website and the related articles,resolutions, and precedents.

  • Stewart

    Here is the contention: a man walks into a ballot station in the autumn of 2014. He is a Scottish voter and a Unionist. He has listened to all the arguments on the issue of Scottish independence over the last two years and has decided to vote “no” in the referendum. He hates Alex Salmond or “that fat, smug, curry munching, tartan terrorist” as he has been taught to call him and worships the memory of Winston Churchill and the recently deceased Margaret Thatcher (he attended her State funeral and wept copious tears). In the Ballot Place he reads the ballot paper and hesitates. He blinks and reads it again. ” Do you agree…….” it begins! “Shit!” he says to himself, “I want to vote “no” but maybe I should vote “yes”.” He shakes his head hard, trying to clear it, determined to wipe that intrusive thought from his mind! 
    “I’m going to vote “no” he says aloud, “no, no no!”
    Feeling more positive, he grips his pencil and reads the question again. “Do you agree…?”, “Do you agree….??”, “Do you agree…..???”
    His hand shakes over the ballot paper. His vision becomes blurred. A voice is in his head. It seems to have a slight speech impediment. “no, no, no!” he tells himself. “yes,yes,yes!!” the voice insists. In a panic he thrusts his quivering hand blindly at the paper, places the X beside the “Yes” box and runs screaming from the polling station.
    Lying weeping on the pavement outside he looks up and sees others dragging themselves to their feet and staggering about, like survivors of a terrorist bombing. Then the wail goes up around him, ” Oh no! I meant to vote “no” but I voted “yes”!”
    All around him distraught unionist are staggering around as if from a trance.
    “Curses to you, Alex Salmond!” they roar “curses to you! We meant to vote against your foul notion of independence, where the Scottish people would be compelled to run their own, THEIR OWN, CAN YOU IMAGINE IT!!, affairs but your sneaky and sinister psychological device has forced us to vote “yes” when we wanted to vote “no”!
    But there was nothing they could do about it. Churchill, Nelson, Wellington and Thatcher were dead and there was nobody left to save the Scots from themselves!
    Then the man woke up. It was all a nightmare, he realised. But now it had all become clear. The words “Do you agree….?” which once seemed so innocent were, in fact, the creation of Scotland’s very own Mugabe and designed to fool the Scots into sleepwalking into independence.
    So let this be a lesson to us all! The Scots, especially the unionists, are too stupid, and I use the word reservedly, to make a rational decision on any question which begins “Do you agree….?” It must never be allowed to happen! Let me suggest an alternative question for the referendum in 2014. Let us bring some fairness into this. How about, “do you thick Jocks seriously think that you can organise a piss-up in a brewery never mind actually run your own country like the Danes or the Swedes?” “No” or fucking “No”!

  • guest

    Surely the electorate must be credited with some level of inteligence, most people understand do you agree blah de blah.

    Some have said that the other referendums held in the uk have used the term do you agree. If so whats the problem?
    Is it the case that each party both unionist and nationalist want their cake and eat it.

    Can we just have a grown up debate about the honest issues surrounding independance, then we can decide yes or no, perhaps some would prefer aye maybe!

    just give us the facts, not the typical political bull***t, then let us answer the question.