So, the panel commissioned by Holyrood's opposition leaders to come up with a “clear, understandable and decisive” referendum question which is “unbiased, fair, and seen to be so” has reported their findings.
Lord Sutherland, Matt Qvortrup and Ron Gould suggest the question should read: “Scotland should become an independent state – Agree or Disagree.”
The Scottish Government’s preferred question, published earlier this year, asks: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country – Yes or No.”
On the face of it, there’s not that much difference between the two. The pro-UK parties’ expert panel uses the word “state” rather than the Scottish Government’s “country”.
The former is more widely understood in an international sense I think, whereas the latter is perhaps that bit more ambiguous. Clarity is, I think key, and for that reason, I can see why “state” would be a better option.
The choice of “become” rather than “be” is an interesting one. This suggests more of a process than a singular event – which perhaps reverses the prior clarity. It would also – potentially – be seen as slightly biased towards a “no” vote, suggesting as it does a period of uncertainty and negotiation before independence would be realised.
Finally, there’s the format. “Do you agree” versus “Agree or Disagree.” The former is considered more biased, though in the 1997 devolution referendum, the statement read “I agree there should be a Scottish Parliament”, and this was widely accepted by the parties at the time (though there was no Electoral Commission to run the rule over it at that time).
Dr Qvortrup himself argues that, “as a general rule, there is no firm evidence that biased questions alter referendum outcomes”. Nevertheless, the question should be as unbiased as we can make it.
If the Scottish Government are in charitable mode, they might consider some tweaks to their question – perhaps keeping the “do you agree” element, perhaps adopting “state” rather than “country” as the outcome. But, unless the Electoral Commission make such a suggestion, they won’t.
And that is the crux of this really. Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have no official say over the wording, with the Electoral Commission obliged only to consider the government’s (or should that be governments’ ?) question. With that in mind, they are trying to muscle into a process they have been shuffled out of.
Today, we’re at another stage in another process which will eventually lead us to a referendum, perhaps with a question similar to one of those above, perhaps with a second question, perhaps leading to a new constitutional future.
Perhaps one of these days someone will decide something important.