A year ago I wrote that no self-respecting pollster would ask the question that Alex Salmond planned to put before the people of Scotland in his referendum. The Electoral Commission has come to the same conclusion, rejecting the SNP’s proposed formulation – “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” – and ruling that more neutral wording must be used.
Examining voters’ reactions to the question, the Commission concluded that Mr Salmond’s wording implied that an independent Scotland was a good thing; merely inviting them to agree could lead people to answer “yes”. As one voter put it, “You’re free to say no, but it goes against the grain with that word [agree]. You don’t feel comfortable putting no”.
The findings echo a survey I conducted immediately after the First Minister unveiled his approach.
Using exactly his question, I found 41% agreeing that “Scotland should be an independent country” with 59% against. Adding two small but powerful words that Mr Salmond clearly found unhelpful – “or disagree” – reduced support for independence to 39%, with 61% against: a 4-point shift in the difference between agreement and disagreement that could be crucial in a close campaign.
Presenting the referendum as a real choice, which it is, produced a more decisive shift in responses. When asked “Should Scotland become an independent country, or should it remain part of the United Kingdom?”, voters opted for the Union by 67% to 33%.
I concluded that the question was too important to be asked in the partisan way Mr Salmond proposed. I am glad the Electoral Commission has agreed.