It’s the question that counts

According to BBC News, the Scottish National Party (SNP) have drawn up a blueprint for the first 100 days of an SNP government, should they win a majority in the next elections to the Scottish parliament. Amongst the generally left-of-centre policies is, unsurprisingly, a plan to hold a referendum on Scottish independence.

They say the ballot paper in such a referendum would read:

The Scottish Parliament (led by executive ministers) should negotiate a new settlement with the British Government so that Scotland becomes a sovereign and independent state.

Presumably voters would then indicate whether or not they agree with the statement.

Why choose such a roundabout way of asking? It could be worse – at least they mention the word “independent”. But why leave that until right at the end of a long sentence? And why use the word “state”? What’s wrong with asking, “Should Scotland become an independent country? Yes or No.”

Would it be cynical to suggest that they are hoping to win over some extra “yes” voters by dressing up the question in such a manner? “It’s right at the end of the sentence, so that must mean that perhaps sometime in the future, Scotland might be independent. At the moment, we’ll just be negotiating… So it won’t hurt to vote Yes…”

What do they mean by “state” anyway? Nation state? Why not use the words nation or country? Another issue here is that the SNP are strongly pro-European – a sentiment perhaps not shared by the average Scottish voter. So it’s clear why they don’t say, “independent state within the European Union.” After all, “member state” is Euro-speak.

Last time there were referendums, on the question of devolved assemblies for Wales and Scotland, the government indulged in what could be described as temporal gerrymandering by scheduling the Welsh referendum for the week after the Scottish one, instead of holding them on the same day as would have been logical. Seeing the rejoicing Scots celebrating their “yes” vote inevitably spurred more people in Wales on to vote “yes” – or perhaps more significantly, to turn out and vote when they might not have done.

The ballot paper layouts proved to be confusing too, with two statements, “I agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament” and “I do not agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament.” Some people decided to voice their opposition by writing “No” next to the first statement. Was this counted as a “Yes”, a “No” or a spoilt paper?

Often referendums seem a good idea for resolving all sorts of political issues. But perhaps the few attempts we’ve had at holding them in the UK have shown that sometimes, in a parliamentary democracy, decisions are best left to elected representatives. Otherwise they’ll make sure they get the answer they wanted anyway.

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