IT is worth recalling the 1998 referendum in Northern Ireland on the Belfast Agreement.
Voters were asked: "Do you support the agreement set out in Command Paper 3883"?
Transparent it was not, and yet nobody argued that the electorate was unable to express its views clearly, or failed to understand what it was being asked.Yesterday, the expert panel commissioned by pro-Union parties to examine the best phrasing for the question in Scotland's independence referendum delivered its verdict.
Instead of the wording proposed by the Scottish Government, "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?", the panel suggested voters should be presented with the more neutral question: "Should Scotland become an independent state?" and required to tick a box marked "I agree" or "I do not agree." The panel's wording is simply more balanced.
First Minister Alex Salmond's "do you agree that..." was loaded. Psychologically, it implied the broad consensus lay in a given direction, and the anonymous voter was invited to concur. There is no good evidence that the wording of a question is influential in the outcome of a referendum. When the panel examined 74 past referendums from around the world, loaded questions appeared no more successful than more neutral phrasing.
In fact, the evidence suggests a question which appears to prejudge the issue may be damaging to the interests of those supporting it.
This makes sense. For every impressionable voter steered towards a "yes" vote by an unbalanced question, there may be others who would react with anger and resistance, and cussedly vote "no".
The lesson from Northern Ireland is that voters well understand what they are being asked to decide on.
More than anything this is an issue of perception, and it is here that the question matters. All parties are agreed that a clear and decisive result is essential, leaving aside for the moment the matter of whether there would be a second question on maximum devolution.
The SNP's proposal so far has the smack of a phrasing geared for controversy, a choice intended more as an initial bargaining position than as a final submission.
The Electoral Commission has made it clear that it will only consider a form of words proposed by the relevant Government, although whether that is the Scottish or UK administration has still to be decided. But the wording proposed yesterday is sensible and a useful contribution.
The sense of unfairness if the question is slanted would be damaging for all sides, and particularly if it leads to a yes vote which is subsequently questionable. A transparent, fair question is greatly preferable for this reason.
Meanwhile we know from other election campaigns that voters have usually made their minds up before they enter the polling booth. The issue will be settled by debate on the substantive issues, not by last-minute switches influenced by semantics, and especially not by partisan bickering. Both sides would do well to focus on the debate on the real issues.
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