Do you agree that we should go for dinner? Do you agree or disagree that we should go for dinner? Do you agree or disagree that we should go for dinner which, just to be clear, would mean not staying in and reheating that delicious pot of tripe I brewed up yesterday? Or should we just go for dinner? The last of these has a certain elegance the others want, to be sure.
The next time I proposition someone, exploring opportunities for an evening repast, I'll certainly take the Electoral Commission's advice when formulating my question. I'm a scrupulous (for which read, uptight) sort of fellow, and I'd hate mischievously to frame my enquiry in a way that wasn't entirely neutral, yea or nay.
Today, the media mostly seems keen to represent the Electoral Commission's advice to the Scottish Government as another damaging turn for the SNP. Disaster for Salmond. A humiliating "rejection" of a skewed and skewing question: just the sort of sly trick you'd expect the First Minister to pull, in a guileful attempt to hornswoggle a goonish section of the electorate into supporting independence accidentally. For what it is worth, my opinion of the Scottish electorate isn't quite as low as many of our elected tribunes in the House of Commons, and by the time polling day comes around, I'd expect folk to have a fair comprehension of what they're being asked, more or less autonomously from the particular text of the question they meet in the booth.
The key features of the agreed question? Its Yes/No structure. While the first, convoluted proposal to emanate from the Scottish Government in 2007 used the language of agreement and disagreement, the second iteration, published in January last year, shortened this to a terser Yes/No pairing. A desire to retain this structure, and so starkly to frame the campaign along oppositionally positive and negative lines, presumably explains why this draft posited independence as a positive proposition. It recalls the balance of burdens in a criminal case in England, where it is for the prosecution to make out an indictment. Do you find the accused guilty or not guilty?
Salmond's critics suggested that the question's presumptive positive was a deliberate attempt, via some subtle cognitive biasing, to plant subtle psychological lures in which the unwitting would find themselves entangled come referendum day, seduced into supporting "separatism" despite their cherished Unionist convictions. I don't find this terrifically plausible. Much more likely, it seems to me, that the SNP were and are keen for the whole campaign to be framed in terms of a clear yes and no, positivity against negativity, springy-hopey-sunny independence against the drear annulling rhetoric of the abominable No men. You can't get this done with a referendum question framed in terms of agreement and disagreement. The Commission's advice leaves this essential framing undisturbed. No affective references to "breaking up Britain" or to "separateness" or "separatism", no reclaiming the positive ground for the pro-Union campaign.
Secondly, it's interesting that the Electoral Commission has sanctioned the language of "country", which has not gone uncriticised in some quarters. None of the participants in their qualitative research exercises struggled with it, preferring its "more commonplace and easily-understood language" to the concept of an "independent state", which the stiff international lawyer might find more pleasing. If only the Commission had conducted their research in the Houses of Parliament, they'd have found several folk with furrowed brows, sorely vexed by the idea of an "independent country". During the Commons debate on the section 30 order, Eleanor Laing, formerly of the University of Glasgow, now Tory MP for Epping Forest, objected to the term:
"I turn next to the question. There is no point asking a question along the lines of: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” That is what the First Minister and the Scottish Government have so far proposed. It is such a biased question that even I would answer yes—of course, Scotland should be, is and always has been an independent country. It is a non-question. There is no point going through the rigmarole of a referendum, spending hundreds of millions of pounds, to ask a meaningless question. If even I would answer yes, the facts speak for themselves: the question is enormously biased."
So too did our old friend, Lord George Foulkes, who told his colleagues on the red benches that:
"It does not refer to membership of the United Kingdom in any way whatever. I have spoken to some of my colleagues here, who think Scotland is currently an independent country in many senses."
Darth Forsyth, also in the House of Lords, took his light sabre to it:
"There is no more committed unionist in this House than I am, but I would be tempted to answer yes to that question. Scotland is an independent country."
Interestingly, there's been a shift or two in the SNP's own thinking on this one. Back in 2007, when the minority Scottish Government introduced its White Paper, the draft Bill envisaged negotiations with a view to making Scotland an "independent state". For some, statehood perhaps seemed a little abstract, with a certain whiff of international legalese clinging to it. So country it is. Which all seems perfectly tolerable to me.