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Top marks for a fair and transparent start to the referendum

ANYONE who still harbours misgivings about the fairness of the independence referendum question, finally agreed this week, should have a look at the Electoral Commission's discussion about whether "be" or "become" should feature in the wording.

"Become" might emphasise the process of change that would follow a Yes vote, the watchdogs considered. Would that incline some to vote No? Or was "become" a more positive word than "be", potentially encouraging a Yes vote?

In the end they opted for "be" as less ambiguous. It implies something would definitely happen, the commission suggested, and focus groups assembled to road test different versions of the question understood that.

The be or become debate was just one of many in drawing up the question Scots now know they will face next year – "Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes/No" – and it illustrates perfectly the lengths the Electoral Commission went to in ensuring its final recommendation was clear and fair.

In the end it would have been very hard for the Scottish Government to object and ministers quickly dropped their preferred "Do you agree?" question (which the commission considered potentially biased in favour of a Yes vote) without complaint.

Does the wording of the question matter that much? Well, it matters that it doesn't matter as Lorraine Murray, of pollster Ipsos MORI Scotland, neatly put it. The new form of words, backed by all sides, means the referendum race can begin untarnished by questions over its legitimacy. The same goes for the even more contentious issue of campaign funding where, if anything, the Electoral Commission did an even more skilful job.

The commission wanted to preserve the principle, laid down in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, that although there are two outcomes from the vote there are more than two sides in the debate and each should be able to put its case. Labour, for example, may argue that social justice and wealth distribution would remain easier to achieve on a UK-wide basis than by an independent Scotland in competition with the rest of Britain. It is certainly the view of some left-wingers in the party. But we can be pretty confident it is not a position Labour's Better Together allies the Scottish Conservatives will dwell on in their own campaign. Equally the SNP's vision for an independent Scotland differs markedly from that of their Yes Scotland partners the Scottish Greens, not least on energy policy.

It is important to allow the full breadth of the debate to be aired but under a formula initially suggested for setting party funding limits, the pro-UK parties would have had a combined advantage of £1 million, a situation the Scottish Government would have found difficult to accept. In the end the commission linked spending caps directly to the parties' share of the vote at the last election, a deft solution that recognised the need for a range of campaigns but kept the overall pro-independence and pro-UK spending limits pretty much equal.

We are not entirely out of the woods on the issue of funding. Better Together and Yes Scotland clashed this week on their respective in-house rules for declaring donations. It is also unclear whether allies will be able to shuffle money around to maximise their spending limits. Yes Scotland has already indicated it might donate cash to the Greens if the party fails to raise the £150,000 it will be allowed to spend in the run-up to the vote. We will have to wait for the Referendum Bill next month for a definitive ruling.

In the meantime, an almighty bust-up has been avoid and the Electoral Commission deserves all of the plaudits it has received this week. Whatever happens, no-one can turn round and say the referendum was rigged from the start.

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