EU referendum – the importance of the question

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May 29, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith

  
It would be easy to think that words don’t matter. But they do in the case of a referendum. Small differences in the wording of a referendum question can make all the difference. It is the government’s perogative to set the wording of the question, but even with that power, they are at the mercy of the Electoral Commission, who were set up in 2000 to make sure that the wording is fair and unambiguous. However we arrived it at it, the question we have now got, which is “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union” is one that the YES/IN campaign should be very happy with. 

In fact, Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader who was in charge of the YES campaign for Scottish independence, said as much on the BBC’s “This Week” programme last night. It was one of David Cameron’s biggest mistakes that he conceded to Salmond the positive half of the independence campaign, allowing the question in that referendum to be “Should Scotland be an independent country”. It meant that every single thing the group campaigning for the status quo, as the NO campaign were doing, to be cast in a negative light, merely because those voting for it had to say “NO”. Furthermore, by allowing the question to be about whether Scotland should be independent, rather than “Should Scotland leave the UK”, Cameron conceded even more to Salmond and the SNP, as the YES voters were looking at a question that had purely positive connotations, without reminding them that they were actually going to have to leave something (as well as, for instance, the Pound Sterling and the EU).

The same mistake hasn’t been made this time. The question is clear and unambiguous and, at the same time, reminds the voter that if they vote NO they will actually be leaving the EU, with all that means. James Wharton, the Conservative MP who last year tried to bring forward a Private Members’ Bill that would have enshrined the commitment to an EU referendum in law, suggested the question “Do you think the UK should be a member of the European Union?” The Electoral Commission tested this question and found that it would confuse some of the UK’s population, who from the wording of the question thought the UK wasn’t already a member of the EU. The Commission then presented the Government with two alternatives: “Should the UK remain a member of the European Union?”, which is clear and straightforward but can be accused of bias as it allows the IN camp to campaign for the YES, or they could have  “Should the UK remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” (with “Remain” and “Leave” as the two options on the ballot paper). The latter is the most neutral option, but the government chose the former.

That is why UKIP immediately released a statement from Nigel Farage that said “that Cameron is opting to give the pro-EU side the positive ‘Yes’ suggests strongly that his negotiations are so much fudge. He has already decided which way he wants the answer to be given, without a single power repatriated.” That may be so, and certainly the opening indications from the other EU countries don’t look good for Cameron’s plan for a achieving changes. Then again, in UKIP’s manifesto, they suggested the question should be “Do you wish to be a free, independent sovereign democracy?” So I’m not sure they have a leg to stand on when it comes to suggesting “fair” referendum questions. 

Whatever the arguments this way and that. In terms of dodging conducted referendums this EU referendum would have to go a long way to match that of Pakistan in 2002, in which General Pervez Musharraf, ignoring the country’s constitution, which said that Presidents should not be elected by a direct vote from the people, was re-elected for another 5 years. The question in that referendum was “For the survival of the local government system, establishment of democracy, continuity of reforms, end to sectarianism and extremism, and to fulfil the vision of Quaid-e-Azam [Great leader – ie Pakistan’s late founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah], would you like to elect President General Pervez Musharraf as president of Pakistan for five years?”. Not sure how he won!

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