“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.