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Ministers remain defiant over referendum question

MINISTERS are standing by their planned wording for Scotland's independence referendum after they submitted what opponents have denounced as a "rigged" question to the election watchdog.

The SNP question to be considered by the Electoral Commission is the one announced by Alex Salmond earlier this year: "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"

Yesterday Alistair Darling, chairman of Better Together, said the ballot proposal was skewed to get the answer desired by the nationalists and added: "This is another attempt to rig the question."

But Blair Jenkins, the chief executive of the pro-independence Yes Scotland campaign, said: "The question is straightforward and fair.

"Provided the Electoral Commission approves the proposed question, the people of Scotland can now start to focus fully on the benefits of independence and how making our decisions under our own terms will allow us to build the kind of country that matches our values, aspirations and priorities."

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who submitted the proposal to the commission, said: "The independence referendum will meet the highest international standards.

"The Electoral Commission has considerable expertise in regulating referendums and elections. I have now written to them to formally request they provide advice and assistance to the Scottish Government by considering the wording of the question that is proposed to be on the ballot paper for the Scottish independence referendum: Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"

Almost two-thirds of those who responded to the Scottish Government's referendum consultation "broadly agreed" with the wording, she said. "The question will be tested to check that it is easy to understand, to the point and unambiguous.

"Once [the Electoral Commission] have reported back it will then be for the Scottish Parliament to decide the final wording of the question on the ballot paper."

In a joint statement, Labour's Johann Lamont, Tory leader Ruth Davidson and the Liberal Democrats' Willie Rennie said: "It is vital that the referendum properly reflects the will of the Scottish people.

"We look forward to hearing the views of the Electoral Commission and will abide by its ruling. It is our hope that the SNP Government will also follow the Electoral Commission's decision and publicly commit to its ruling."

The Electoral Commission is looking to complete its work on testing the soundness of the question by the end of February so this can feed into the Holyrood process.

John McCormick, Electoral Commissioner for Scotland, said: "We will assess the referendum question to see whether voters find it clear, simple and neutral. If it isn't, we'll say what needs to be done.

"We'll also ask for advice from accessibility and plain-language specialists, and we'll ask prospective campaigners, politicians, academics and other interested people for their views on the question."

The Opposition parties in Scotland embarked on their own exercise headed by Sir Stewart Sutherland and it came up with a remarkably similar proposition, but based on a statement and the invitation to agree or disagree.

On that body was referendums expert Dr Matt Qvortrup and he made the point yesterday that once there has been a two-year debate there will be few Scots who do not know what is at issue, at which point the wording of the questions will make little difference.

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