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.

Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.