Coffee House

What difference the Scottish independence question makes

2 February 2012

11:39 AM

2 February 2012

11:39 AM

A very useful contribution from Lord Ashcroft this morning, in the form of a poll he’s commissioned on Scottish independence. What sets Ashcroft’s poll apart from previous surveys is that he
asks three different questions to three different sets of around 1,000 Scots.
 
The first is the question Alex Salmond wants on the ballot paper at the referendum: ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?’ 41 per cent say ‘Yes’ and
59 per cent say ‘No’. The second alters the wording only slightly, to ‘Do you agree or disagree…’ and finds 39 per cent agreeing (i.e. supporting independence) and 61 per
cent disagreeing. So far, fairly consistent: the difference between these two sets of results is within the poll’s margin of error.
 
But ‘agree or disagree’ questions have a tendency to bias results towards the ‘agree’ side. Anthony Wells pointed this out in a great post a couple of days ago, with
some examples. For example, a single poll last
month had both 74 per cent agreeing that ‘The Government should not increase public borrowing any further and its top priority should be to pay off the nation’s deficit as soon as
possible’ and 49 per cent agreeing ‘The Government should borrow more in the short term to increase economic growth as much as possible even if it means reducing the deficit more
slowly’. In other words, at least 23 per cent of respondents said both that borrowing should be increased AND that borrowing should not be increased.
 
To counteract this phenomenon, Ashcroft’s third question asks people to choose between two different options: ‘Should Scotland become an independent country, or should it remain part of
the United Kingdom?’ Under this formulation, he finds significantly greater support for the union: 33 per cent choose independence, against 67 for staying in the UK. As well as avoiding the
bias towards agreement, Ashcroft suggests two other reasons for
this question finding less support for independence than Salmond’s:

‘First, the use of “be”, rather than “become”. Asking whether Scotland “should become an independent country” emphasises, however faintly, that
people would be voting for a significant change. This would probably dampen enthusiasm for independence… Second, and more striking still, the Salmond Formulation does not mention the United
Kingdom – a point made powerfully by Alistair Darling, among others.’

Ashcroft’s poll proves that the wording of the referendum question can have a significant effect on the results. It also gives the lie to the SNP’s claim that this week’s Ipsos MORI poll confirmed ‘that the momentum is with the independence case’ — as they were
comparing a more neutrally worded older poll with the new poll which used Salmond’s question.
 
What this all means is that, if the true will of the Scottish people is to be gauged in a referendum, a different — less biased — question will have to be on the ballot paper. As Ashcroft
says, ‘The question is too important to be asked in such a partisan way’.


More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.



Show comments
  • Frankly

    On that question:

    http://tinyurl.com/89d5sfu

  • John Lea

    Swiss Bob – Cameron isn’t. He does have a Scottish surname and ancestry, but according to Wiki he was born in London.

  • RolftheGanger

    The words “Do you agree” are essential in the question.

    Take a homely example:
    “Should we move from here?” Yes. (Answer to a hypothetical)
    “Do you agree to move from here?” No way.
    (Answers an immediate issue of personal commitment)

    The latter wording, “Do you agree” tests commitment. The SNP’s question is the stricter and tougher option. Harder on we supporters of independence, but it reduces the later scope for the inevitable Unionist discounting, delay, obfuscation and denial tactics when the Yes result is announced.

  • Keith the Barrister

    It is worth noting that questions of the type proposed by Salmond, (“Do you agree that …”) are known as ‘leading questions.’ They are so-called because they lead the respondent towards one answer rather than another. They are banned in the courts of this country (save for in cross-examination) because the answers are not regarded as a trustworthy indication of the witness’s own view.

    It seems to me that it would be odd if the fate of the nation should be determined on the basis of a question of a type that would be forbidden in a County Court on a £200 debt claim. But I don’t expect Cameron or any of the other goons at Westminster to stand up to Salmond.

  • Pramston

    I would have liked a vote on whether England should have become an independant country rather than have legislation foisted upon it by a Labour government unfairly loaded with extra Scottish MP’s. What’s happened to the idea of Scottish MP’s being excluded from votes that only affect England? The Scots may do as they wish but why must the English always be treated as if they are an irrelevant part of the Union?

  • Bill (Scotland)

    I do like Austin Barry’s style! 😉

    Of course I think it only fair that the English, if they wish, should have a referendum, too and perhaps Austin Barry could come up with a suitably blunt question for them to answer as well about their fellow members of the UK ;). Salmond plays a good game, but his suggested question is hopelessly biased, whereas Ashcroft’s is much closer to neutral, even if I agree that as Scotland is already ‘independent’ (or at least no less independent than any other part of the UK), that word in his question could be modified to make it even less partisan.

  • Innocent Bystander

    Oops!… my comment at 3:52pm should have read as follows ……..

    I don’t understand what the problem is with the proposed question “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country: yes or no”. I believe it to be quite straightforward.

    Further, the Scottish Government is simply following the precedent of the 1997 devolution referendum, when there were two similarly phrased questions, the result of the second contingent on the outcome of the first.

    The first asked the Scottish people: “Do you agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament? Yes or no”, and the second: “Do you agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-rising powers? Yes or no”.

    I don’t recall there being such a brouhaha in 1997 … so what’s changed?

  • Swiss Bob

    John Lea, are you telling me that they’re not Scots?

    Martin Alexander, you are incorrect.

    I’m English and if I had my way they’d be thrown out of the UK for being such bores. Three more years of this and they won’t be voting to leave, they’ll have already been thrown out.

  • Ghytier

    Russell’s comment at 12:56 makes me quite cross. Sure if you hang around King’s Cross you’ll see more than your fair share of loons (many aggressive and with a Scot’s accent) But we have also provided you with surgeons, lawyers, bankers, politicians, journalists and the like. Were you to come up here and see what we have got in return – open toed sandal wearing bearded Guardian reading social workers (and that’s just the women) and a smattering of families who thought the world was going to end with the year 2000 computer bug. Thanks a bunch guys.

  • martin alexander

    Swiss Bob….We have Scotch Mist and Scotch Eggs..We do not have Scotch People….Up your game son and add to the debate…By the way I am English….Martin

  • Innocent Bystander

    I don’t understand what the problem is with the proposed question “Do you agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-rising powers? Yes or no”. I believe it to be quite straightforward.

    Further, the Scottish Government is simply following the precedent of the 1997 devolution referendum, when there were two similarly phrased questions, the result of the second contingent on the outcome of the first.
    The first asked the Scottish people: “Do you agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament? Yes or no”, and the second: “Do you agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-rising powers? Yes or no”.

    I don’t recall there being such a brouhaha in 1997 … so what’s changed?

  • Tiberius

    John Lea: it was actually Partick Thistle 😉

  • daniel maris

    It’s better that referenda should refer to written documents. E.g. Salmond’s government should prepare a document “Scottish Government’s negotiating stance on independence negotiations with the UK government.” and ask “DO you support the porposals set out in this document. The document should be sent to every voter.

  • James

    The “why doesn’t the question mention the UK” question has already been answered. To mention the UK in the question would create confusion between political union and monarchical union.

  • Mac

    Lord Ashcroft holds dual British and Belizean citzenship, and has the unique distinction of being universally disliked in both countries because of his business practices.

    PS Belize gained its independence in 1981.

  • Mac

    The question that should have been asked is;

    Do you agree that Lord Ashcroft should pay VAT on polls he commissions?

  • John Lea

    Swiss Bob – I love the fact that as soon as a PM does anything remotely unpopular he suddenly becomes ‘Scottish’. I’m just waiting for someone on here to tell me that Adolf Hitler’s grandfather once had a trial with Albion Rovers.

  • Ian Walker

    Alternative questions are fun!

    Do you think Scotland should:

    [] remain the second most important country in the United Kingdom
    [] become the 28th most important province of the New German Republic

  • Tiberius

    Like your style, Austin, and I’m sure that’s the question Salmond chose as his first choice before his moderate advisers (ie. those who keep their hatchet beneath their kilt) stepped in.

    Salmond is the (ample) embodiment of political lewdness.

  • Russell

    Austin.
    As there about 20% of scottish people live in England, a more appropriate question would have been to ask the English if they want the scottish to leave, particularly the foul mouthed, agressive ones.

  • Swiss Bob

    I’ve no idea what the Scots are moaning about, the UK is run by the Scotch mafia.

    Blair, McDoom and Cameron, says it all.

  • John White

    I think this is a specious argument. By 2014 after years of debate, every Scottish resident entitled to vote will be intimately aware of the issues surrounding the referendum and the composition of the question will be irrelevant – they will know what is meant by Independence and vote according to their wishes.

  • Stewart Bowman

    Of course we Scots are too thick to undestand what “independence” means. Best to just take away our vote altogether, whaat!

  • Sean Haffey

    And from Yes Prime Minister…

    Sir Humphrey: “You know what happens: nice young lady comes up to you. Obviously you want to create a good impression, you don’t want to look a fool, do you? So she starts asking you some questions: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?”
    Bernard Woolley: “Yes”
    Sir Humphrey: “Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?”
    Bernard Woolley: “Yes”
    Sir Humphrey: “Do you think there is a lack of discipline in our Comprehensive schools?”
    Bernard Woolley: “Yes”
    Sir Humphrey: “Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?”
    Bernard Woolley: “Yes”
    Sir Humphrey: “Do you think they respond to a challenge?”
    Bernard Woolley: “Yes”
    Sir Humphrey: “Would you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?”
    Bernard Woolley: “Oh…well, I suppose I might be.”
    Sir Humphrey: “Yes or no?”
    Bernard Woolley: “Yes”
    Sir Humphrey: “Of course you would, Bernard. After all you told you can’t say no to that. So they don’t mention the first five questions and they publish the last one.”
    Bernard Woolley: “Is that really what they do?”
    Sir Humphrey: “Well, not the reputable ones no, but there aren’t many of those. So alternatively the young lady can get the opposite result.”
    Bernard Woolley: “How?”
    Sir Humphrey: “Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?”
    Bernard Woolley: “Yes”
    Sir Humphrey: “Are you worried about the growth of armaments?”
    Bernard Woolley: “Yes”
    Sir Humphrey: “Do you think there is a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?”
    Bernard Woolley: “Yes”
    Sir Humphrey: “Do you think it is wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?”
    Bernard Woolley: “Yes”
    Sir Humphrey: “Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?”
    Bernard Woolley: “Yes”
    Sir Humphrey: “There you are, you see Bernard. The perfect balanced sample.”

  • Dick Winchester

    Salmond’s proposed question is obviously the wrong question. Scotland is already an independent country by any normally accepted measure, but in a Union of countries to the mutual benefit of the membership. A partnership one might say. The only question that is valid in any future referendum is to ask whether the people of Scotland wish to remain within the United Kingdom, or to leave. The issue of independence is entirely irrelevant, as this status follows on from the outcome of the referendum. I am hopeful that the good people of Scotland will recognize the question that Mr Salmond wishes to ask, for the opportunistic, biased and patronising one that it is and make their feelings known. Scotland has nothing to fear from asking the right question.

Close
Can't find your Web ID? Click here