By Dave Taylor

“How you ask a question will influence the answer” is a pretty obvious truism. 
One such question popped up on Sunday when the No campaign asked Scots whether taxpayers money should be wasted on piles of leaflets.

Better Together asked Scots:

“The Scottish Government has recently published a white paper on independence. This sets out plans for how Scotland would become independent if people vote Yes in the referendum next year, and what policies an SNP-led independent Scotland might pursue.

The Scottish government are reported to be spending £800,000 of taxpayers’ money  publicising this document through leaflets sent through doors, billboard posters and newspaper adverts.

Do you think this is a good or bad use of public money?”

Unsurprisingly, a majority (56%) thought it was a “bad use”.  Ask people about public cash being spent that might have been diverted from schools, hospitals, etc, and they will normally say that’s bad.

Surprisingly, only a bare majority thought it was a bad idea and, even more surprisingly, Better Together released those poll details!

The irony of course is that this same Better Together campaign has been attacking the Scottish Government relentlessly over its failure to supply answers to questions.  The poll was of course agenda driven and the aim was to create a headline attacking the Scottish Government.

There is a dearth of decent political stories at this time of year and for the sake of a grand and a half, Better Together obtained their mischievous headline.

“Agenda driven” polling is a useful term to describe polls where parties outline a situation (in their own terms) and then ask people to respond to that suggestion.  Unless the results are seen as favourable for the party, such polls never see the light of day.

In this case the agenda wasn’t to gauge public opinion on a policy but to ask in such a way as to virtually guarantee an outcome.

But was it money well spent?

Were I a Unionist, I’d have advised Better Together that publishing such a result would produce little benefit, since it did nothing to persuade people to vote No, and simply reinforced their reputation of relentless negativity.

The Yes campaign commissioned no such poll, but the SNP decided to adopt an interesting experiment in their own festive survey, again aimed at generating a helpful headline.

The SNP chose to poll people in the rest of the UK (including Northern Ireland, which is almost always ignored) about the continuation of the Sterling and Common Travel Areas, in an agenda driven poll.

The first question asked:

“A Common Travel Area has existed since the 1920s which provides for freedom of movement throughout the area for citizens of the UK, Republic of Ireland, Channel Islands and Isle of Man.

Putting aside your own views on whether or not Scotland should become an independent country, if independence does happen do you think that there should continue to be freedom of movement with no passport controls between England and Scotland?”

The second question asked;

“Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom are among each other’s largest trading partners.  Putting aside your own views on whether or not Scotland should become an independent country, if independence does happen do you think that Scotland and the rest of the UK should continue using the pound in an agreed sterling area?”

Independence supporters should not get overly carried away by the results that 71% of those in the rest of the UK supported continuing a sterling area, and 75% a Common Travel Area, with an independent Scotland.  The question effectively asked them if they wished minimum upheaval in the event of Scottish independence.

Had the agenda setting sentence been along the lines of, “An independent Scotland could adopt an open immigration policy, leading to hordes of poverty-stricken foreigners pouring across the border into England…” or “The Scottish bank collapse caused the world economic crisis …”, then different answers might have been expected.

Agenda driven polling isn’t designed to test attitudes in a neutral environment because, in the real world, people make decisions on the basis of the mindset they have when asked the question.

2014 will be the year when we discover if the Yes mantra that “Hope will overcome Fear”, will prevail or whether the Better Together concept that “Fear will always overcome Hope” turns out to have been most effective.

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