Electoral Commission advises SNP to change Independence Referendum question

The Electoral Commission has published its advice on both the question for next year’s referendum on whether Scotland should leave the UK and spending limits. Both sides of the debate have been quick to accept the recommendations, which means that most of the issues on process should now be resolved.

This means that Scots will be asked next Autumn to answer:

Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes/No

This is different from the SNP Government’s proposed question:

Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?

And also from the rather cumbersome question drawn up by a panel set up by the parties who oppose independence

Scotland should become in independent state: I agree/I do not agree

The rationale behind the 8 words in the new question are outlined in a 47 page report and were summarised by the Commission’s John McCormick who said:

We have rigorously tested the proposed question, speaking to a wide range of people across Scotland. Any referendum question must be, and be seen to be, neutral. People told us that they felt the words ‘Do you agree’ could lead voters towards voting ‘yes.’

The Commission also recommended spending limits for each political party, based on their 2011 Holyrood vote share. This means that in the 16 weeks leading up to the referendum, parties supporting independence, the SNP and Greens, would be able to spend £1,493,000 while those against separation, Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats, can spend a total of £1,431,000. This is over and above the £1.5 million which can be spent by each of the main campaigning organisations, Better Together and Yes Scotland.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie has welcomed the Electoral Commission advice, saying:

Yesterday I said we’d back the Electoral Commission whatever their advice.  My position remains the same today.

I will accept their word.  They have wisely changed the wording from the SNPs leading question, found a balanced spending formula and set out the need for a clear post result process.

Setting out the considerable process of breaking up a country would help voters understand the seriousness of the decision.

A No vote to reject independence means we would remain part of the UK.  It would also open the door to the development of a consensus for more powers for the Scottish Parliament including the opportunity for Home Rule in a Federal UK.

The advice, however, opens up a potential new front for a barney over process. The Commission, not unreasonably, wants voters to be informed of the process to be followed after the referendum. If we vote for independence, how would the final terms for independence be agreed. They say:

We recommend that the UK and Scottish Governments should clarify what process will follow the referendum in sufficient detail to inform people what will happen if most voters vote ‘Yes’ and what will happen if most voters vote ‘No’.
We recommend that both Governments should agree a joint position, if possible, so that voters have access to agreed information about what would follow the referendum. The alternative – two different explanations – could cause confusion for voters rather than make things clearer.
The last thing the SNP wants is to actually discuss the nuts and bolts of independence,as support decreases when they do, so if they can divert attention from scutiny of their plans, they will. If they can blame Westminster, they will. However, Michael Moore, Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland has a well deserved reputation for being reasonable and will give them little cause to do so.

* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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7 Comments

  • I think the EC was very generous to the SNP. The question doesn’t qualify what independence means or the most obvious consequence of it, leaving the Union. A more fair question would be:

    “Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country?”

    Now that is a fair question. But the SNP are trying desperately to obscure this fact from their arguments.

  • Al McIntosh 30th Jan '13 - 3:01pm

    This represents a huge slap in the face to the Westminster-led anti-independence campaign and a victory for Yes Scotland.

    The electoral commission have fully supported Yes Scotland’s call for pre-referendum talks and directed the Westminster government to agree to talks with the Holyrood government about the issues that would follow a yes vote in favour of Scotland’s freedom next year. So far at PMQs, David Cameron has refused to accept the recommendations of the electoral commission in full, whereas the Scottish Government have moved quickly to do so.

    Unless the UK government agrees to accept the recommendations of its own electoral commission in full and without equivocation, it is they who will be seen to be obstructing Scotland’s right to self-determination and they who are tainting the process with bias.

  • It seems like meaningless quibbling to me. Surely all the questions mean (and will be understood by voters to mean) the same thing. It might as well read: Independent Scotland? (Yah/Boo).

  • Tony Dawson 30th Jan '13 - 7:10pm

    @mpg:

    “I think the EC was very generous to the SNP. The question doesn’t qualify what independence means or the most obvious consequence of it, leaving the Union. A more fair question would be:

    “Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country?””

    You’re totally right. How did both Coalition Parties allow this mini-coup for the SNP? Which individuals were involved? It reminds me a bit of the AV fiasco.

  • Keith Browning 31st Jan '13 - 9:20am

    Why dont those south of the border get a vote because it affects us all as well?

  • Why isn’t the question simply:

    Yes we do or No we don’t ;-)

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