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Originally published on the RMG:Clarity blog on January 27, 2012

It was reported on Wednesday that the Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has come up with what he thinks should be the question asked in a referendum on Scottish independence.  The Scottish National Party leader wants the question to be:

Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?

Mr Salmond described this question as ‘short, straightforward and clear’, however, it is a one sided question and is therefore not appropriate for a referendum.  It presents a position (Scotland should be an independent country) and asks people to agree with it, rather than make up their minds between two opposing positions.  In the 1997 devolution referendum in Scotland voters were given two ballot papers, one on the principle of devolution and one on tax powers.  Each ballot paper presented two views and the voter had to tick one.  The statements used were:

  • I agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament, OR
  • I do not agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament.

and

  • I agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax varying powers OR
  • I do not agree that the Scottish Parliament should have tax varying powers.

These questions are two sided, and present both the ‘yes’ vote and the ‘no’ vote with equal weight and do not lead the voter down a particular path.

As experienced researchers, we know that with any survey it is very important to ensure that questions are designed in such a way that they are not leading the respondent to a particular answer.  When it is a referendum that will decide the fate of a country it is even more important that the question is fair.  It is my hope that the Electoral Commission will oversee and regulate the referendum and ensure that a fair and balanced question is asked of the Scottish people.  If not, any result will lack legitimacy; those pushing for a ‘no’ vote will be able to argue (and rightly so) that the referendum was biased against them from the outset.

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