Tory efforts to rig the independence question simply won’t wash

Social media can be an empowering place and offers politicians and those we serve unprecedented scope for informing, challenging and shaping the world around us.

For those of us fortunate enough to enjoy elected office, it is a tool that we can use to great effect in terms of helping get our message across to commentators and the wider public.

But it is also a place ripe for political blunders of the kind that previously, in the pre-social media age, might have been confined to office banter or to the innermost recesses of a politician’s own mind.

So it was when Adam Tomkins took to Twitter recently to enjoy a bit of back and forth repartee with his Holyrood Tory colleague Murdo Fraser.

The exchange, ostensibly light-hearted, exposed much about current Scottish Tory and wider unionist thinking in their bid to head off – or indeed to try to gerrymander – the independence referendum that everyone knows is coming.

For, in the exchange of tweets with Mr Fraser, Mr Tomkins has let the cat out of the bag by making it clear that he favours framing an independence question in a Leave/Remain context, aping the question on the ballot paper in the 2016 EU referendum, because he thinks it would benefit the anti-independence side of the argument.

So there we have it. The current Tory focus on the issue of the question for Indyref2 has nothing whatsoever to do with the high-minded ideals their MSPs publicly proclaim.

Instead, it has everything to do with a transparently calculated attempt to rig the question in a way that they believe favours their preferred outcome.

No impartial arbiter of such issues could reasonably conclude anything else from Mr Fraser’s remarks.

Indeed, the unionist desperation to have such a question adopted has spilled over into the almost comically leading questions they now regular insert into their paid-for opinion polling.

It simply won’t wash. For a start, the 2014 independence referendum was, by wide agreement, the gold standard in how to conduct such issues.

And furthermore, the question which was asked then, and which the Scottish Government proposes should be used again, was one proposed by the Electoral Commission.

The Commission, it should be remembered, rejected the Scottish Government’s initial proposed question and instead came forward with the one which was used in September 2014.

That format – asking voters to say “Yes” or “No” to the question “ Should Scotland be an independent country?” – was tested by the Electoral Commission in the run-up to Indyref1 and has been used subsequently in almost 60 opinion polls.

In evidence to a Holyrood committee last week, the Electoral Commission agreed that the 2014 question had been “easy to understand, clear, simple and concise and was neutral”.

So the 2014 question has been tested, provides precedent, is easily intelligible to voters, has the confidence of the public and remains in current use via widespread opinion polling.

In short, why change it and risk confusing voters?  The Leave/Remain formulation is inextricably bound up with Brexit and the risk it carries of conflating independence with the issue of EU membership in the minds of some voters is all too apparent.

To be clear, I am in favour of the principle of testing proposed questions, but the existing question has already been tested. And if a question has been used again and again and again, and remains in current usage, it would be a very serious step to throw it out.

More pointedly, what is the case for following the example of the 2016 referendum in any respect whatsoever?  The ill-fated Brexit vote and its chaotic aftermath have scarred the UK body politic almost beyond repair – why on Earth would anyone think that this now infamous plebiscite should be the model for Scotland to copy?

There was a coda to Mr Tomkins’s stated desire for a Leave/Remain question, in the form of the tweeted reply from Mr Fraser, who suggested a two-thirds majority should be required for the pro-independence side to prevail in Indyref2.

Again, while the tone was superficially jocular, the underlying intent was anything but. How do we know this? Because a newly formed anti-independence group calling itself “Scotland Matters” has publicly advocated – apparently in all seriousness – exactly such a two-thirds supermajority threshold for independence. So, for all of the denials yesterday from the Scottish Tories’ interim leader, this suggestion is in the mainstream of unionist thinking.

It is as legitimate as suggesting that a Yes vote should win with only around a third of people backing it.  A fundamental tenet of democracy is that one person’s vote is worth as much as anyone else’s – this proposal would leave that principle in tatters.

But those of us who support Scotland taking its place in the world as a fully self-governing nation should actually take great heart from these developments. They are a clear sign of how rattled the opponents of independence now are, and an admission that they know are unlikely to win 50 per cent of the vote in the next referendum. The whiff of panic is palpable.

Murdo Fraser took to the pages of this newspaper earlier this week, accusing the pro-independence side of  trying to skew the terms of Indyref2. The Scottish Tories, not for the first time, are guilty of projecting their own internal calculations and of a decided lack of irony and self-awareness.

Loading the dice, stacking the deck, or just plain gerrymandering – call it what you like, but the pattern in clear; Scottish Tories are witnessing the near disintegration of UK democracy under their party at Westminster and are so fearful of the rising tide of support for independence that they are now openly resorting to the kind of suggestions which should be laughed out of the room.

Scotland will have another opportunity to choose independence, and when it comes it must, and will, be a free and fair choice.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman.