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'Your Scotland, Your Referendum': An Analysis of Consultation Responses



4.1 This chapter presents an analysis of respondents' comments in relation to Question 1 in the consultation document. Question 1 asked for views about the proposed referendum question and the design of the ballot paper. The proposed referendum question was: 'Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?' [Yes / No]. A draft of the ballot paper (which showed the layout of the proposed question and the response boxes) was included in the document.

Question 1: What are your views on the referendum question and the design of the ballot paper?

4.2 A total of 25,533 respondents made a comment at Question 1.[8] Of these, 22,473 respondents made a comment specifically about the proposed referendum question.[9] An analysis of these comments indicated that 64% broadly agreed with the proposed wording of the question and 28% did not; the remainder had unclear or mixed views. The balance of opinion on the proposed referendum question is discussed further at the end of this chapter.

Comments on the proposed referendum question

4.3 Respondents who agreed with the proposed referendum question generally described it as "clear", "concise", "unambiguous", "simple", "straightforward", "to the point" and "easy to understand".

4.4 Those who disagreed often expressed diametrically opposed views to those who agreed, describing the proposed question as "biased", "leading", "misleading", "loaded", "too simplistic", "unclear" and "confusing".

4.5 Those who agreed with the question generally expressed their satisfaction in a single word, or a short sentence or phrase, without further elaborating their response. However, the most common argument given in support of the proposed question was that similar wording (including the 'Do you agree…' construction) had been used for the devolution referendum in 1997.

4.6 In contrast, those who disagreed often provided more detailed arguments in support of their views and / or offered suggestions for alternative questions. The 28% of respondents who disagreed with the proposed question generally gave one (or more) of the following four reasons:

  • The question was felt to be "biased" or "leading" in several respects. In particular, the 'Do you agree' construction was strongly believed to invite a 'Yes' response. Regarding this point, respondents sometimes cited the opinions of academics, market researchers and others who had publicly commented on the biased nature of the question. It was also suggested by some respondents that putting independence as the positive option (i.e. the 'Yes' choice) further accentuated the bias. Those who suggested this believed that if the positive option were the status quo, there would be a different outcome from the vote. Finally, it was also suggested that having the 'Yes' box above the 'No' box on the ballot paper could bias the response.
  • Some respondents felt the question was "unclear", since the meaning of 'independence' had not been adequately defined. Those who believed the question was unclear sometimes posed a series of questions about the implications of independence for defence, membership of the European Union, the currency, the Queen as head of state, and so on.
  • Some respondents felt the question was "misleading" in that it did not specify that independence meant separation from the United Kingdom.
  • Finally, there was a view that the proposed question was "confusing" in that it might be possible to agree that Scotland should be independent (perhaps at some point in the future), without actually wanting independence to become a reality at the present time. The 'Do you agree' construction was also seen by some respondents to be potentially confusing (as well as biased) because it was unclear who voters would be agreeing (or disagreeing) with. The point was also made, less often, that in some ways Scotland was already an independent country (for example, in relation to international sporting events), and therefore, it was confusing to ask if Scotland should be an independent country.

4.7 Respondents who supported the question sometimes indicated that they were aware of the views of people who believed the question was biased. These views were often, but not always, dismissed as being without foundation.

4.8 However, there was a group of respondents (including those who agreed and those who disagreed with the proposed referendum question) who advocated a more consensual approach. These respondents often said they were in favour of independence, but they were concerned that, if the vote for independence was won, it was crucial not to give those who were opposed to independence any reason for challenging the outcome. Therefore, they argued that there needed to be a consensus among all parties about the wording of the question. This point was sometimes linked to an argument for having the Electoral Commission or another independent body closely involved in drafting the question.

Respondents' suggestions for alternative questions

4.9 Respondents often made suggestions for one or more alternative questions which they believed would be more acceptable to them personally, or to critics. A wide variety of alternative questions were suggested. However, those mentioned most frequently were:

"Should Scotland be [or become] an independent country? [Yes / No]"

"Do you think [or believe] that Scotland should be an independent country? [Yes / No]"

"Do you want Scotland to be an independent country [or an independent state]? [Yes / No]"

"Do you agree or disagree that Scotland should be an independent country? [Agree / Disagree]"

4.10 Relatively minor changes to the proposed question included (among others):

"Do you agree that Scotland should be a fully [or totally] independent country?"

"Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?"

"Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country now?"

4.11 However, the 28% of respondents who did not agree with the proposed question often wanted more substantial changes. There were three main groups:

  • Those who believed that the question should include a reference to separation, or leaving the United Kingdom. In some cases, respondents wanted this to be the question's main proposition:

    "Should Scotland separate from the United Kingdom?"

    In other cases, it was suggested that the concept of separation should simply be included in a question about independence. For example:

    "Do you believe that Scotland should become an independent country separate from the United Kingdom?"
  • Those who believed that the question's proposition should be based on the status quo. For example: "Should Scotland remain in the United Kingdom? [Yes / No]". Or "Do you agree that Scotland should remain a part of the United Kingdom? [Yes / No]".
  • Those who felt that the referendum vote should not be a Yes-or-No vote. This group felt instead that the propositions for independence and for remaining in the Union should both be stated positively, and voters should be asked to vote for the proposition they favoured. Respondents who advocated this approach to the question felt this would avoid the potential bias which could result from having independence as the positive proposition (as discussed in paragraph 4.6 above, first bullet point). One example of how this might be done is as follows:

    Tick only one:

    tick box questions

4.12 Other respondents suggested changes along the following lines. However, these two types of suggestions were made much less often than those in 4.11 above:

  • Those who argued that a vote in favour of independence only gave the Scottish Government a mandate to negotiate for independence with the UK Government. These individuals wanted a question such as: "Do you agree that the Scottish government should enter into negotiations with the UK Government to secure independence for Scotland?". Furthermore, this group felt that, once the terms of independence had been agreed between Scotland and the UK, there should be a second referendum so that the people of Scotland could vote on those terms.
  • Those who felt the question should be as simple as possible. For example: "Should Scotland be independent? [Yes / No]". Or even: "Scottish independence? [Yes / No]".

Comments on the ballot paper

4.13 Around one in six respondents made a comment about the ballot paper. Of these, nine out of ten made a positive comment such as: "The ballot paper is fine", "The layout is fine", "The ballot paper is clear and easy to understand".

4.14 However, just over 300 respondents also made some suggestions in relation to the ballot paper. These included:

  • Translating it into other languages (Gaelic was mentioned most often)
  • The need to use non-white paper (blue or yellow were mentioned), and to avoid using block capital letters, for people with dyslexia
  • Changing the distance between the Yes / No text and the boxes
  • Changing the font size for one or more of the components of the ballot paper, for example, making the Yes and No text larger.
  • Having the papers printed with No above Yes
  • Having half the papers printed with No above Yes, and half with Yes above No.

4.15 It was suggested that the needs of people with learning disabilities, visual impairments or reading difficulties should be taken into account in the design of the ballot paper. One way of doing this might be to use images (i.e. the Saltire for yes and the Union Jack for no; or a 'thumbs up' for yes and a 'thumbs down' for no) to help those with literacy problems. However, there was also a contrasting view that such visual aids could be seen as leading people to vote in a certain way.

4.16 Finally, respondents occasionally commented that voters may need to be educated in advance of the vote so that they understand how to mark their ballot paper in order for it to be counted as valid. A few respondents commented specifically that it should be acceptable for voters to put a tick, rather than an 'X', in the box, or to circle their chosen response.

Balance of opinion on the proposed referendum question

4.17 As mentioned in paragraph 4.2 above, 22,473 respondents made a comment about the proposed referendum question. Of these, 64% agreed with the proposed question, and 28% disagreed; the remainder expressed unclear or mixed views about the question. Annex 3 provides details of how responses were classified in relation to the extent of their agreement or disagreement.

4.18 The proportion of respondents agreeing or disagreeing with the proposed question varied substantially amongst subgroups. (See Table A3.1 in Annex 3 for details.) For example, campaign respondents (both standard and non-standard) were more likely than non-campaign respondents to agree with the proposed question. Among the organisations / groups who expressed a view, the balance of opinion was more evenly split between agreement, disagreement and mixed or unclear views.

4.19 Other points to note are that:

  • All three of the campaigns included a statement about the referendum question in their campaign texts. The SNP campaign stated support for the proposed question, while the responses received through the Scottish Labour and Lanarkshire campaigns were classed as unclear because their comments focused on the importance of having the Electoral Commission rule on the wording of the question. Neither of these campaigns specifically stated whether they agreed or disagreed with the question proposed. Those who submitted non-standard campaign responses largely expressed similar views as the campaign through which they were submitted.
  • Of the 164 organisations / groups that responded to Question 1, 105 made a comment about the wording of the proposed referendum question. Nearly a quarter of these had unclear or mixed views. Again, this was often because the respondent advocated a role for the Electoral Commission or another independent body in advising on the question, without making their own views clear. Furthermore, some group respondents specifically stated that they had consulted their members and found mixed views on the question.