DOESN’T it seem remarkably convenient that polls commissioned by the anti-independence group Scotland in Union produce much worse figures for Yes than the routine polls commissioned by newspapers? Needless to say, it isn’t happening by chance. Standard practice in the polling industry for many years has been to ask the 2014 referendum question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” By contrast, Scotland in Union have persuaded their pollsters Survation to use a radically different question, modelled on the EU referendum question, and offering a choice between remaining in the UK and leaving the UK.

They’ve presumably gone down that road because of past evidence that any reference to “leaving the United Kingdom” tends to boost estimates of the No vote. For example, during the long indyref campaign, YouGov used a tortuous question which characterised the vote as being about “leaving the United Kingdom and becoming an independent country”. It was almost certainly no coincidence that YouGov were known at the time for reporting much bigger No leads than other online polling firms, or that they suddenly reported a significantly smaller No lead as soon as they switched to a more neutral preamble.

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Scotland in Union would doubtless argue that there is no reason to suppose that the 2014 question will be used again in any future referendum, and that an alternative question doesn’t become illegitimate just because it’s less favourable to the pro-independence campaign. But it’s worth remembering that the 2014 wording was not just signed off by the Electoral Commission, it was actually proposed by the Electoral Commission after extensive testing. It’s highly likely that a similar conclusion will be reached again next time, and that Scotland in Union’s preferred question will be rejected out of hand for lack of clarity.

Why would the commission feel that a Remain/Leave choice was appropriate for a referendum on EU membership, but not for a decision on Scottish independence? It boils down to the difference in the relationships between the UK and the EU, and between Scotland and the UK. Regardless of the ambiguity at the time of the EU referendum about the form Brexit would take, we did know that the EU is an international organisation of which the UK is a member, and that leaving the EU would automatically return the UK to the status quo ante of 1972, ie: a sovereign non-member state. There is no equivalent default position for Scotland in the event of leaving the UK, because the Scottish state did not become a "member" of the UK in 1707. It simply ceased to exist, and its territory became part of the UK.

Testing of a Remain/Leave question is likely to reveal considerable confusion over what Scotland would be leaving the UK to do. Would we become part of another state? Would we become a crown dependency like Jersey? Or would we become independent? It’s not immediately clear, and for that reason Scotland in Union’s question cannot be regarded as a legitimate way of seeking views on independence. It remains to be seen whether the question in the next indyref will be identical to the one used in 2014, but it’s extremely probable that it will actually ask about independence, and that the two possible answers will be “Yes” and “No”.