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26 January 2012

Salmond should change the question

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

By George Eaton

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.

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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.