‘ARE you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?”

“Do you think there is a lack of discipline in our comprehensive schools?”

“Do you think young people would welcome some authority and discipline in their lives?”

“Do you think they would respond to a challenge?”

“Would you be in favour of reintroducing national service?”

You may remember Sir Humphrey Appleby’s masterly exposition about how to stack an opinion poll in Yes, Prime Minister. His lesson? How you ask questions powerfully shapes the answers you receive. Bernard Woolley finds himself cornered by his previous answers and the logic they bend him towards: he supports the restoration of national service. But when Sir Humphrey frames mandatory military service in terms of arming children and teaching them to kill – Woolley flips his conclusions. He’s now against it.

Words, classically, have power. But just how much? Can governments pull a Sir Humphrey on the country by framing referendum questions in a leading way? Is a perfectly neutral framing of contested issues even possible?

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This week, the Electoral Commission has “firmly recommended” to a Holyrood Committee “that it must be required to provide views and advice to the Scottish Parliament on the wording of any referendum question included in legislation under this proposed framework, regardless of whether we have previously published our views on the proposed wording.”

Some have argued the wording should be brought into line with the 2016 European poll. Instead of a Yes or No answer: “Should Scotland remain in or leave the UK?” The Scottish Government’s line, by contrast, is – if Yes and No were good enough for 2014, they’re good enough for the second half of 2020.

Certainly, if you delve back into the record, the Electoral Commission’s response to the 2014 poll expressed no doubts about the basic structure of the question. It was, they said, “clear and simple, easy to understand, to the point and not ambiguous”, accepting it was a “neutral” way of framing the issues which did not “encourage voters to consider one response more favourably than another”. What can have changed? The main objection now seems to be rooted in the Pollyanna Principle. Critics of the 2014 poll have decided that it has an inbuilt positivity bias.

Colour me unconvinced. Unlike Bernard Woolley, in 2014, Scots were not faced with quickfire questions on the hop, but a referendum in the wake of months of campaigning, debates and arguments in print and on the airwaves. To pretend that context doesn’t matter is to fail to learn Sir Humphrey’s lesson.

The National:

Concerns about biased referendum questions aren’t insubstantial. You can imagine the kind of thing which might risk leading voters by the nose to certain conclusions or bamboozling them altogether. The question – “do you agree that Scotland should continue to resist minority demands for separation from Our Precious Union™?” – could be perceived as just a little stacked one way, as would asking the electors whether “Scotland should remain an underdeveloped colony of an outsized and indifferent neighbour or leave the UK?”

But when you begin to dig into it, the analysis of the neutrality of language feels awfully nebulous and impressionistic. Take the language of the EU poll. The Electoral Commission’s qualitative research before the EU referendum found “some participants felt that “leave” was a strong word which could be perceived in a negative light” and others objected to the language of “remaining” in the EU as this suggested “maintaining the status quo, which could be perceived in a negative or positive light depending on existing views toward UK membership of the European Union”.

The constant refrain from the punters in the commission’s focus groups was “none felt that these concerns would influence their own personal vote”. Now I appreciate, nobody wants to admit they’re so susceptible to the nudging and prodding of words that they’d flip how they’d vote. The point about unconscious biases is that they must remain unconscious to work. But the insistence that the basic structure of a question will bias the outcome after months of campaigning, criticism and debate on the issues seems a very long stretch to me.

I’m more receptive to the idea that the basic language of a referendum can powerfully shape how the respective sides are able to campaign. Take one example. In 2016, the commission’s research participants didn’t identify any major differences in neutrality between using the word “remain” or “stay” – which I find seriously puzzling. Some of their punters said remain felt a more “professional, more formal” turn of phrase – but one small voice in the room insisted it seemed “more harsh”, arguing “stay is a softer word”.

I agree. Remain feels chilly, and that chill seeped right through the 2016 campaign. In some definitions, “remain” means “a part not destroyed, taken, or used up”. To remain speaks to me of being left behind, while others forge ahead. Perhaps it is the little intimation of death lurking behind the word too – it makes you think of remains – which gives it a longer shadow.

In contrast with the starchiness of remaining – “to stay” feels at once simpler, homelier and more affirmative, even if you might occasionally use it to root a Schnauzer to the spot. As Shakespeare’s Sister sang – the cry of “stay with me” has real emotional force. “Remain with me”, by contrast, is the patter of the police constable radioing in for back-up after a cuffing. It’s Count Dracula, as he pulls the burgundy curtains shut and whips out the dental floss.

Perhaps it is the failed poet in me, but it also irritates me that Remain and Leave aren’t a rhythmic pair, like Yes and No. While “stay” and “leave” are affirmative monosyllables, with its two stresses, “remain” feels fussier, less robust. But what do I know? The Electoral Commission said this was all tickety-boo.

There’s a simpler explanation for why opponents of independence have suddenly seized on the idea that Scots should be asked about remaining or leaving the UK in any future referendum, and it takes us right back to the contextual significance of these words. We can grumble over whether the language of remaining and leaving had sneaky subtexts even then – but when the 2016 EU referendum ran, these terms were politically inert. Nobody had these terms in their Twitter bios.

Columnists didn’t talk about Leavers and Remainers. They weren’t tribes and identities. Not so now.

Ever since a majority in England and Wales voted to leave the EU, some politicians have been doing their darndest to encourage a series of confusions about the nature of the UK and the EU. Before the Brexit vote, Unionist politicians never talked about the “UK single market.” Since 2016, the meme has tumbled out of countless MPs’ mouths, conflating the EU common market with trade within the United Kingdom. “And how,” they ask, “can the SNP be in favour of leaving one union, but want to remain in another? It’s incoherent.”

The only way you can seriously ask this question is if you know sod all about what the European Union is, does and how it reaches its decisions. The question confuses the structures of a state with a multistate union. It ignores the fact there may be good reasons to want to leave your state, while continuing to participate in a 513 million common market on your doorstep. It only feels like a winning debating point if you struggle to rub your two brain cells together fast enough to appreciate the basic distinction between (a) being in minor partner in an incorporating union subject to one sovereign parliament dominated by MPs representing English constituencies on the one hand, and (b) participation in a multi-state political and economic union with limited competencies and qualified majority voting on the other.

Nobody in the real world talks about Scottish independence in terms of remaining and leaving the UK. Reframing the Scottish national question in the language of Brexit would be entirely artificial. Some 84.6% of the population participated in the 2014 referendum. By changing the language used in the 2014 poll – and indeed, almost every opinion poll on the issue which has run in the half decade since – there is real scope for the ordinary voter to fall into confusion. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that – for some Unionists – cultivating this confusion is intentional, tactical, Sir Humphrey grade cynicism.