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A question of neutrality

TO be, or not to be, independent.

That is the question facing Scotland in the autumn of 2014. But that begs a second question: how to put the question in a way that does not suggest one particular answer? The Scottish Government confirmed yesterday that its preferred wording is: "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?". By virtue of its electoral mandate, it has the right both to hold the referendum and have the final say as to how the question should be worded. However, it also has a vested interest in the outcome, which is why it would be foolhardy to reject the advice of the Electoral Commission, a genuinely independent body.

There was a subtle difference in the responses to this issue yesterday from Electoral Commissioner John McCormick and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Mr McCormick pledged to "assess the question to see whether voters find it clear, simple and neutral" while Ms Sturgeon spoke of the commission checking that "it is easy to understand, to the point and unambiguous". Note: no mention of neutrality from Ms Sturgeon.

The pro-independence lobby make two arguments regarding the Government's preferred wording. The first is to deny that it is a leading question, pointing out that 64% of those who responded to its consultation were "broadly in agreement with the wording". Secondly, it argues that following a lengthy campaign on the issue, voters are perfectly capable of understanding the question and responding to it.

Is it a leading question? A substantial minority (28%) of respondents to the Scottish Government's consultation described the question as "biased, leading, misleading, loaded, too simplistic, unclear or confusing".

Let us put the boot on the other foot and suppose that this referendum had been called by those opposed to Scottish independence and that their wording was: "Do you agree that Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom?" Put that way, it certainly looks like a question that invites a positive response. Some of those who have criticised the Scottish Government's preferred wording claim it could make as much as a 10% difference to the response.

This is probably an exaggeration. There is a world of difference between a snap poll conducted in the street or over the telephone and a once-in-a-lifetime decision about how Scotland will be ruled, conducted after a hard-fought campaign lasting more than two years.

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore is not a neutral bystander in this debate. However, he is right in his assertion that ignoring the advice of the Electoral Commission on the referendum question would be a "serious breach of trust with the people".

The signs are not good. The Scottish Government has already threatened to ignore the commission's advice on campaign funding.

To do the same over the wording would risk undermining the authority of the poll and could even open the result to legal challenge. That is why the SNP should join the other main parties in publicly agreeing to abide by the commission's ruling on this issue, whatever that may be.

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