Is the wrangle over the wording of the referendum paper an
attempt to intimidate the Scottish parliament? IMAGE: STOCKPIX.EU
Scottish independence: referendum wording row - fair or intimidation?
analysis by Jo Edwards
The choice for Scots in the autumn of 2014 is whether they want their nation to be or not to be an independent country. A simple question? Some parties in the referendum campaign would say it is not.
The Electoral Commission (EC) - a Westminster creation - serves as the UK election watchdog and has the role of advising the Scottish parliament on the referendum rules thanks to a concession made by Alex Salmond who initially favoured the creation of a Scottish Electoral Commission specifically for this purpose.
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The EC has stated that the question on the ballot paper must be presented clearly, simply and neutrally - a perfectly laudable position. As a Westminster body, the EC has to be seen to be impartial. It is already viewed with some suspicion given a belief in various quarters that Scotland’s referendum is already being externally manipulated, especially from London.
Certainly the wrangling over the rules to date has had the effect of making the Scottish electorate suspicious if not bored.
More than 27,000 Better Together supporters have been marshalled to sign a letter urging Alex Salmond to accept the recommendations of the Electoral Commission on the referendum question which to be published tomorrow, reportedly rejects the Scottish government's preferred phrasing.
It does not help that the EC’s findings appear to have been already widely disseminated around the pro-Union camp.
The letter, written by the pro-UK campaign chief Alistair Darling, calls for a "fair referee and fair rules" for the 2014 vote. It was sent to the first minister yesterday after 27,385 people put their names to it.
The Scottish government has proposed the question: "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" on the ballot paper.
The wording has been criticised by a number of polling experts and psychologists who claim it is loaded because it invites an affirmative answer.
Fears have been raised by Unionist politicians such as Labour peer Lord Foulkes who previously warned of the potential legal ramifications if the electoral watchdog is ignored. Given the role of the watchdog is entirely advisory it is difficult to see how the present wording could result in a legal challenge. Raising concerns of legality over the referendum result consequently appears to many as an attempt to intimidate the Scottish government and parliament.
A Scottish government spokesman said: "It is for the Government to propose the question, for the Electoral Commission to test those proposals and it will ultimately be for the Scottish Parliament to decide on the question".
Complicating this situation, described in certain quarters are scaremongering tactics by pro-Union supporters, are statements by those such as referendum expert Matt Qvortrup who says he does not think the question is a problem, but can see that the Electoral Commission might.
The psephologist from Cranfield University says: "Well it certainly is not a biased question if you compare it to referendums which have been asked around the world”.
"It is relatively common that the word 'agree' or a similar word is used".
On the other hand, critics such as Professor O’Donnell from Glasgow University believe the problem to lie in the lack of context.
Professor O'Donnell adds: "You could say, 'in light of what is being proposed do you agree?' and refer them to something else, another document where you can find all the context”.
"Otherwise the question is too lacking."
For Professor Qvortrup, this is the most important point.
He says the question is not vitally important because people will know before they enter the polling place what their views are on independence.
Prof Qvortrup says: "The overall conclusion one can draw if one looks around the world, is that the question itself extremely rarely has an impact on the outcome of the referendum."
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