Salmond should change the question

Scottish First Minister criticised for "loaded" question on independence.

Our poll on Scottish independence, showing that the gap between the Yes and No camps has narrowed to just a point, has caused quite a stir north of the border, providing the Herald with its front page splash today (see below).

The full question we asked voters was "Do you support Scotland becoming a country independent from the rest of the United Kingdom?" But Alex Salmond's version - "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?" - is already the subject of furious debate. Though commendably simple, it is has been rightly criticised as a leading question.

Alistair Darling, who has become something of an unofficial spokesman for Unionism, said:

The question is loaded. He is inviting people to endorse the separation of a successful independent nation. He is not asking if you want to remain part of the United Kingdom, which I would prefer.

It is asking for trouble and if he tries to push through unfair wording someone will go to court. It's typical of Salmond who wants to call the shots on the rules, the conduct, the wording and ultimately what the result means.

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Robert Cialdini, an American psychologist with no stake in the race, told the Today programme:

I think it's loaded and biased because it sends people down a particular cognitive chute designed to locate agreements rather than disagreements. It's called a one-sided question or a loaded question... [pollsters] for a long time have warned us against those sorts of questions.

There's a very simple fix to de-biasing those sorts of questions. Instead of saying how much do you agree with this policy or option the survey takers simply have to say how much do you agree or disagree... That produces an even handed and unbiased approach.

So far, Salmond, who has conceded that the UK Electoral Commission should run the referendum, has said that the commission will have "a role in assessing the questions" but has refused to say whether it would have a veto over the final wording.

One can't fault his Machiavellianism but if the referendum is to be credible, it is hard to see how Salmond can avoid amending the question.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Westminster terror attack: What we know so far

The attack, which left a police officer and bystanders dead, was an attack on democracy. 

We had just wrapped up recording this week's podcast and I was on my way back to Westminster when it happened: the first terrorist attack on Parliament since the killing of Airey Neave in 1979. You can read an account of the day here.

Here's what we know so far:

  • Four people, including the attacker, have died following a terrorist attack at Westminster. Keith Palmer, a police officer, was killed defending Parliament as the attacker attempted to rush the gates.
  • 29 people are in hospital, seven in critical condition.
  • Three French high school students are among those who were injured in the attack.
  • The attacker, who was known to the security services, has been named as Khalid Masood, a 52-year-old British born man from Birmingham, is believed to have been a lone wolf though he was inspired by international terrorist attacks. 

The proximity of so many members of the press - including George, who has written up his experience here - meant that it was very probably the most well-documented terrorist attack in British history. But it wasn't an attack on the press, though I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't thinking about what might have happened if we had finished recording a little earlier.

It was an attack on our politicians and our Parliament and what it represents: of democracy and, ultimately, the rights of all people to self-determination and self-government. It's a reminder too of the risk that everyone who enters politics take and how lucky we are to have them.

It was also a reminder of something I take for granted every day: that if an attack happens, I get to run away from it while the police run towards it. One of their number made the ultimate sacrifice yesterday and many more police and paramedics had to walk towards the scene at a time when they didn't know if there was another attacker out there.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.