Nicola Sturgeon must stand firm on the issue of a Yes/No referendum. There must be no compromise. The crucial factor is that, by the time a new referendum is held, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ will have been associated with the opposing positions on the constitutional issue for a decade. These associations are firmly established. Far too firmly established to be affected by any of the factors which have caused the Electoral Commission to rethink its position on Yes/No options.
What was problematic with the ballot in the 2014 referendum was, not the Yes or No response required, but the question asked. By asking ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, independence was made the contentious issue. Despite the fact that independence is the normal, default status of all nations, it was this that was being queried. It was this that was presented as the option which had to be proved. The question itself suggested doubt about independence.
The question largely determined the nature of the campaign. And it was a structure which greatly advantaged the anti-independence side. They were never required to make a case for the Union. The form of the question gave them a basis of doubt on which to build an almost entirely negative campaign.
Better Together, the British political parties and the British government were never required to make a case for the Union. The matter of the Union and what it means for Scotland was never scrutinised. Despite the Union being constitutionally anomalous, it was treated as the ‘natural order’. Despite it being by far the most common constitutional status, independence was presented as the scary unknown.
All of this stems from, or is strongly influenced by, the question on the ballot paper. We are entitled to wonder why the Electoral Commission failed to identify and address this issue.
In a referendum, voters are asked to make an informed choice between two options. A referendum is, or should be, a binary choice between two clearly stated and reliably deliverable options. In order that the choice should be as informed as possible, both options must be subject to similar scrutiny. This was not the case in the 2014 referendum. The case for voting No was barely examined at all. There was precious little case to examine. The direction in which the campaign was driven by the question meant the anti-independence campaign was let off the hook.
How could voters make an informed choice when they were presented with massive amounts of dubious information about one option, and no information at all about the other option?
The next independence referendum, gives us a chance to redress the balance. Allowing that the result of the 2014 referendum stands as a verdict on independence delivered on the basis of a campaign which made this the contentious issue, we can reverse that in a new plebiscite by making the Union the contentious issue. We can use a question which will drive scrutiny of the arguments and facts presented in support of preserving the Union. We can, at last, have the case for Scotland being part of the UK thoroughly examined.
Anti-independence campaigners cannot complain that this puts them at a disadvantage without admitting that the Yes side was placed at a disadvantage in the first referendum. The pro-independence side can argue that their case has been scrutinised and that the results of this scrutiny are a matter of public record and public knowledge. The new form of ballot would tend to promote a campaign which would add to that knowledge material which was left out of the 2014 campaign.
I would suggest that, instead of a question, the electorate should be asked to vote on a proposition that the Union between Scotland and England be dissolved. The ballot would ask if they agree with this proposition. The issue is clear and either option is obviously deliverable – the Union can be dissolved, or not. The ballot requires only a Yes or No answer and maintains the established associations of those responses with the two sides of the constitutional issue.
There are many lessons to be learned from the 2014 independence referendum. The Electoral Commission shows little sign of having learned those lessons. Besides which, the UK’s elections and referendums watchdog really shouldn’t have an influential role of any kind in Scotland’s referendum. It is Scotland’s referendum and it should be entirely managed in Scotland and and by Scottish institutions answerable to the Scottish Parliament. That is something else our First Minister must stand firm on.
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