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Friday, 9 March 2012

Ask the bloody question(s)–Professor Curtice’s two questions

Professor Curtice is an eminent and respected academic, with a long honourable record of commenting on Scottish electoral matters. I am therefore astonished at his proposal for two questions in the independence referendum in 2014.

Assuming today’s Scotsman has reported him accurately in the little graphic (not shown in the online edition) at the head of Eddie Barnes’ article Expert offers three choice-vote in just two questions Professor Curtice has fallen into exactly the dangers and pitfalls of a two-question ballot paper that have been detailed by many, including myself at some length in previous blogs.

From Drop Box

Referendum ballot paper

Referendum ballot questions

Referendum ballot question - confusion?

The first question – Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? – poses no problems. It envisages two possibilities only, and one answer only - YES or NO – gives a complete and unequivocal voter response.

But the second question – If Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom, do you agree it should have “devo max” or the status quo? – has several weaknesses in construction.

Since it is conditional on the answer to the first question, it assumes a NO answer to the first question. But by whom? The voter answering the question or the outcome of the total ballot? Since answering the second question is not prohibited by answering the first, a voter may answer both questions making either assumption.

For example, a voter may legitimately answer YES to the first question and YES to the second, in other words, have a fallback choice. As a supporter of independence, that is exactly what I would do, and have the right to do, since my assumption is that if the YES vote fails, and Scotland remains a part of the UK, then I want devo max.

My YES vote to the second question would then be aggregated with what could be a minority YES to the second question by those opposed to independence. While I am clearly happy with that, it is evident from the comments of those opposed to independence that they would not be, and confusing and contested outcomes could result.

Of course, the Electoral Commission could rule that the second question will only be counted if a YES vote fails. But have they the right to make such an assumption and decision if in fact many voters quite reasonably completed the ballot on different assumptions?

The second question itself is badly structured and worded. If I say YES to the question - If Scotland remains a part of the United Kingdom, do you agree it should have devo max or the status quo? - what am I saying YES or NO to?

YES I agree it should have devo max  or  YES I agree it should have the status quo?

If I say NO, am I saying NO I don’t it agree it should have devo max   or   NO I don’t agree it should have the status quo?

In my view, the Electoral Commission should look critically at these questions and tell Professor Curtice to go back and think again.


I gave Prof. Curtice the benefit of the doubt, thinking the Scotsman graphic might have been at fault. But I was wrong - list to John Curtuice state the question here.


  1. Peter you have altogether too much respect for Curtice. I used to hold him in reasonably high regard - untill the last Scottish election when I believe he showed his true colours! And this question ,if it has his endorsement, is a total disgrace. How any so called polling expert or professional psephologist could suggest it is amazing. I wish we could have Robert MacKenzie back!

  2. Peter, it's as clear as the nose on your face - or is my face?

    Independence - YES or NO

    If it's a YES (50%+ of the vote) then AS goes for independence. End of story.

    If it's a NO (50%+ of the vote) then it's the STATUS QUO. End of story.

    But, this is where it's a tad worrying for the Unionistas. People in Scotland want change. They don't want the SQ and if it's the only game in town - the big danger for the Unionistas is that people will go for change - which is YES.

    What the Unionista dumplings didn't get for the last 50 years or so, was that people would at sometime get fed up with being shafted and would want progressive change. They kept all the information and facts very quiet, indeed officially secret, about Scotland's position as a wealth bringer and used this as their only protection.

    Now, no matter how much they spin this about - the alternative question Devo (whatever) is their only hope of surviving the YES or NO issue and Salmond was no doubt rubbing his eyes in disbelief when they started demanding it on the ballot paper. The SNP didn't ask for its inclusion - they've agreed with the Unionistas that people should have this choice, but that the Unionistas have to make the case for it.

    Only thing is - not one of them is capable, it seems, so far, of making a positive case to balance the YES argument.

    When all of this is done and dusted - a proper historical account will raise the question of, who could possibly allow the Union and all of its financial benefits to the main beneficiary to be lost?

  3. I wish we could have decent music back, the Attlee Government, the Casino and the Carlton, etc. But alas ...

    1. Peter - still struggling to understand your comment - alas!

  4. HOC Scottish Affairs Committee with academics, determined that Devo max is going to be the winning position as it is the middle ground and it also suits WM. They know voters for independence will vote also for Devomax, so Devomax is the "preferred" option as the "majority" want it according to them.
    Politicians felt no need to outline what Devomax is, just that vote gives the Scots the right to talk about it.

  5. If they use the questions in the Curtice/Scotsman format, they might get a nasty surprise.

  6. The second question is obviously impossible to answer with a yes or a no. I'm thinking the Scotsman just got the graphic wrong.

  7. If they did get it wrong, rullko, don't hold your breath waiting for them to acknowledge it.

  8. Forgive me if I am bit think today.

    This is not a two question referendum but a two referenda set of two questions.

    Pick the second if you have rejected the first, leaving aside both questions being above 50%, it would require a second referendum to settle.

    Confusing does not begin to describe what Prentice is suggesting.

  9. It simply proves that it is impossible to frame a second question at all. If Devowhatever can't be defined in advance then you can't ask the question at all.
    Defining Devowhatever is, of course, only one part of that problem. Westminster could simply refuse to allow any additional powers to be devolved (shades of 1979) and then there is no Devowhatever option. Westminster won't guarantee any such movement on powers in advance of 2014, particularly in light of the fact that Westminster's current Scotland Bill seeks to take back powers from the Scottish Parliament and impose ludicrous restrictions on the Scottish First Minister.
    I am sure you will be aware of those restrictions but other readers may not be, for them let me say here that, should the Scotland Bill pass into law, the First Minister of Scotland would have to ask Westminster's permission before he could speak with representatives of foreign governments.
    The more I think about it, The more I am convinced that there should be only one question on the ballot paper, simple Yes or No answer -Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?
    Once everyone in Scotland knows the truth of the last 30+ years I feel confident the answer will be Yes.
    There is an interesting question which may be worthy of consideration by shrewder minds than mine: has England already broken the terms of the Union? If so, what recourse do we have as a result of that breach of contract?

  10. That is indeed the nub of it, plus the fact that since we would still be part of the UK, the rest of the UK would rightly claim a voice in how much devolution they were prepared to grant us.

    Its only value would be as the expression of an aspiration, unlike a YES vote for independence, which could not be ignored or blocked, consultative referendum or not.

  11. My guess is that it's not John Curtice's fault but that of the Scotsman ballot mock-up

  12. Perhaps the Scotsman editor was supposed to take out either "Devo Max" or "Status quo" but overlooked it?

  13. No apology, retraction or correction from the Scotsman today, Lpmch, nor any comment from Prof. Curtice. But my little squeaks in the wilderness of question analysis are beneath their radar - and their attention.

  14. Well, you have more respect for academics than I do. They are prone to rent themselves out. After all, academics have to put bread and butter on the table just like the rest of us and it is pretty clear that Curtice is a fairly devoted Unionist in addition to being an academic (respected or otherwise). No crime, but let's not pretend it doesn't affect his opinions.

    The reason behind this article by Curtice? Pretty simple and I think it may be the first of many. The Unionists have just figured out (imagine gasps of true horror in certain quarters) that the Scots REALLY MIGHT vote for independence and that they are not buying the "jam tomorrow" argument.

    What to do? What to do? Offer Devo-Max which can not possibly be enforced if/when it wins. What a smashing idea!

  15. I have watched Professor John Curtice over many years, Jeanne. I have not seen any evidence of bias in anything he said. He presents the psephological data, and draws his academic conclusions form them.
    Those conclusions are not always the ones I would like them to be, but between the poles of the political parties understandably partisan interpretations of the latest YouGov or IpsosMORI findings, he provides an objective benchmark that keeps my feet on the ground, even though my head and heart are in the independent Scotland air.

  16. "But have they the right to make such an assumption and decision if in fact many voters quite reasonably completed the ballot on different assumptions?"

    Yes, absolutely. The powers of Devo Max, wholesale, are inherent in independence. There is no power in Devo Max anyone could be said to be choosing in deference to independence. Anyone who votes for independence is perforce in favour of Scotland having the powers of Devo Max--there's no logically denying that. The vote for independence incorporates a matching share of the vote for Devo Max (i.e., a 55% favourable vote for independence vs. a 75% favourable vote for Devo Max implies only 20% vote against independence but in favour of Devo Max, in any practical sense).

    The bottom line is, if independence garners a majority vote, then it has by definition defeated an apparently larger vote for Devo Max by dint of the phrasing of the question. Only in the event that the majority of Scots do not favour independence does the support for Devo Max--assuming it has not also failed to win a majority vote--trump the stated preferred option. There is no conflict between any two majority answers because the first option is plainly stated as the preferred option, with the other being contingent on its failing accession.

    All that's required is for this to be made clear prior to the referendum being held. Properly stated and communicated, it is an elegant one-stroke solution to assessing the precise will of the Scottish people and settling for generations the question of Scotland's constitutional arrangements.

  17. I'm afraid you have missed my points entirely, barefoot hiker, and I can only suggest you read all my relevant blogs, examples, numbers, percentages, etc. No point in going it over again in a comment exchange.

    Thanks for posting.