Scottish independence: UK consultation supports single question

Union jack and saltire The SNP referendum consultation has asked for views on a second question

There is "overwhelming" support for Scottish voters being asked a single, clear question on independence, the UK government has said.

The position was backed by 75% of the 2,857 respondents to the Westminster government's consultation on the issue.

The results came amid debate on including a second question on the referendum ballot paper, on increased powers short of independence.

First Minister Alex Salmond said the exercise was "puny" and "discredited".

SNP ministers want to hold the independence referendum in autumn 2014.

The UK government has published a summary of the responses to its independence consultation, which it said had come from a "broad coalition" of members of the public, businesses and academics.

Mr Salmond, whose own government consultation, due to end in May, has received almost 12,000 submissions, also raised concern that the UK government version had been "flooded" by a Labour Party campaign, which made up a quarter of the responses.

The first minister has expressed his preference for a single question in the referendum, as has the UK government and the other political parties.

The SNP leader wants to ask: "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"

However, the Scottish government referendum consultation has asked people for their views on a second question to deliver what has been dubbed "devo-max" or "devo-plus" to the Scottish Parliament.

The UK government said the results of its consultation showed:

  • 75% of respondents agreed there should be a single question on Scotland's constitutional status.
  • 70% agreed the referendum should take place sooner rather than later, including a large number of businesses based in Scotland.
  • 44% said 16 and 17-year-olds should be able to vote in the referendum - a policy backed by the Scottish government but not Westminster.
  • 86% agreed the Electoral Commission watchdog should have a role in overseeing an independence referendum.
  • 63% of those who back the devolution of powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum support the use of a "Section 30 order", through the Scotland Act, to make it happen.
  • 71% expressed the view that those resident in Scotland should be entitled to vote in a referendum.

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore said his government's proposals to deliver a "legal, fair and decisive referendum" had been "strongly endorsed".

Analysis

Almost inevitably, our politicians are playing a numbers game of who has got the more responses, whose responses do or don't contain more duplicates, and then Mr Moore trying to tell us what proportion of people are "for" or "against".

Consultations are frankly not the mechanism by which you find out the balance of public opinion in Scotland - because there is no guarantee at all, for either consultation, that the people who are responding are representative.

The aim of a consultation is not to find out the balance of opinion among the public, but to quire the wisdom of the crowd.

Political parties are their own worst enemies - virtually all of the political parties have been putting things on their website, giving people a standard text to send.

In truth - that completely contradicts the purpose of a consultation.

If loads of people all go and say the same thing, we learn nothing new.

"Putting the independence referendum on a sound legal footing was at the heart of our proposals and there is strong support in the consultation for the UK and Scottish governments agreeing an order to provide Holyrood with the legal power to hold the referendum," he said.

"The consultation has also produced a resounding endorsement for the referendum having a single, clear question on independence. The reasons given are compelling.

"The Scottish government was elected on a manifesto commitment to hold an independence referendum - it is not at all clear what a second question would be about.

"There must be a clear and decisive outcome to this referendum and a multi-option referendum will confuse matters."

Mr Moore said the quality of the argument had also been backed up by quantity, adding: "The individuals and organisations who are supporting this option have added their voice to the many already supporting a single question.

"We are now in the position where a single, clear question is the preference of the UK government, the Scottish government, the main political parties in Scotland and three-quarters of those responding to the consultation."

The UK government, which is currently in talks with Scottish ministers over the referendum arrangements, says extra powers must be devolved from Westminster to Holyrood to make it "legally watertight", because constitutional issues are reserved.

The UK government favours an early referendum, suggesting September 2013 for a vote - but the SNP has warned the coalition not to try to dictate the terms of the poll.

Meanwhile, a spat over the transparency of the two separate consultations has continued.

The Scottish government earlier moved to discount anonymous responses from its exercise, following Labour concern that allowing comments from unnamed people would allow the process to be rigged.

Start Quote

We encourage people to participate in consultations of such significance - we do insist that people give their names, their e-mail addresses”

End Quote Margaret Curran Shadow Scottish secretary

However, Mr Moore told BBC Radio's Good Morning Scotland programme that 740 responses to the UK consultation had used text which was the same as had appeared on the Labour Party website.

He added: "That was consistent with a number of others from across Scotland who are also in favour of single questions and wanting to have this sooner rather than later.

"The SNP has on its own website a standard text, which talks about wanting to have two questions and allowing the timetable to run to 2014."

Mr Salmond told the BBC: "Michael Moore has discredited any semblance of credibility of the UK government's consultation exercise - he admitted that a quarter of the tiny number of submissions that have been received were actually identical from the same Labour party website, so it actually tells you nothing whatsoever.

"Consultations have to be substantial, like the Scottish government consultation - particularly when we're talking about an issue which is the most important in Scottish politics for 300 years.

"Secondly, they've got to be independently analysed - you can't have politicians trooping in, claiming things from a tiny sample and then admitting that it had been flooded by a block vote from the Labour Party website."

SNP position Unionist position

Wants the referendum in the autumn of 2014

Wants the referendum "sooner rather than later"

Backs a yes/no ballot but the consultation paper also asks if voters want a second "devo max" question

Wants a one question yes/no "decisive" ballot

Wants 16 and 17-year-olds to be able to vote in the referendum

Backs the status quo with 18 and over able to vote

Backs the Electoral Commission's regulation of the ballot

Wants the Electoral Commission to oversee the vote

The first minister added: "If you have a consultation exercise which is so puny and tiny it can get flooded by multiple responses or identical responses from the same website, it discredits it completely."

When asked if Labour had tried to rig the UK consultation, shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran, said: "The Labour party, like the SNP, like all political parties publish our views.

"We encourage people to participate in consultations of such significance - we do insist that people give their names, their e-mail addresses - it's open and transparent standard practice."

Ms Curran added: "This is an important consultation, an important stage in the debate Scotland's having about our future.

"It quite clearly tells us that people do want an unequivocal, unambiguous decision."

The UK government said that, during its consultation period, 101 responses received without an individual email address, believed to have sent through an "online form", were not included in the consultation.

There were also 118 cases where UK ministers said they received more than one response from the same person and, to avoid duplication, one reply was recorded in each case.

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