New question in second independence referendum ‘would be very confusing’

Changing the wording of the question voters would be asked if there was a second Scottish independence referendum would be “very confusing”, the Constitutional Relations Secretary has said.

Mike Russell said there was a “clarity and consistency” to be gained from having the same wording as in the 2014 ballot, when people were asked: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

He said because this question was “still current” there was no need for the Electoral Commission to test it if there is another referendum in 2020 – as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already proposed.

The commission has made clear it “firmly recommends” it should provide its “views and advice to the Scottish Parliament on the wording of any referendum question”, regardless of whether it has previously done so.

Mr Russell said this is not necessary, adding: “This is not a new question, this is a current question. It is still being asked.

“I can’t see why you would suddenly decide ‘oh we’d better brush this one down and have it tested again’. It’s still there, it’s still being asked, it’s current.”

He spoke out as he was being questioned by MSPs on Holyrood’s Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee as part of their consideration of the  Referendums (Scotland) Bill – legislation introduced by Scottish ministers drawing up a framework for any future referendums.

Committee convener Graham Simpson suggested it would be “better” for the independent Electoral Commission to “make a ruling or recommendation” on the question if there was a second vote on independence.

Fellow Conservative MSP Alison Harris said: “Surely it would be more simple and a simple solution just to follow the recommendations of both the Electoral Commission and the Law Society and just basically require that a question must be assessed and the assessment to be put before the Parliament regardless of when that question was examined before.”

Constitutional Relations Secretary Mike Russell (Jane Barlow/PA)

Mr Russell disagreed, saying re-examining the question could “lead to endless repetition”.

He argued: “There is a clarity here that should be stuck with.

“I think if you have got a question that is still being used, is used on a monthly basis, I think frankly it is tautologist to say we had better examine that again.

“If you have got a fresh question, new question, new subject, of course you start afresh.”

He told MSPs: “In my thinking the question that was asked in 2014 remains a current question, it was a question that was approved in 2013 by the Electoral Commission.

“In fact, the question as it is phrased now is not the same question that he Scottish Government put in for testing … there was a change to that question as a result of testing and the Scottish Government accepted that.

“That question then was used up until 2014 in every opinion poll and it has been used since then in over 50 opinion polls on independence.”

He added: “I think there is 11 months out of the last 40 it has not been used.

“So I think there is an issue of clarity and consistency.

“If a question is current and is in current usage, why would you change it, it would be very confusing to change it.”

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