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Electoral Commission publishes its assessment of Scottish independence referendum question and its advice on campaign spending limits

Published: 30 Jan 2013

The Electoral Commission has today published its assessment of the Scottish Government’s proposed independence referendum question. The elections watchdog has also given its advice on what the campaign spending limits in the run-up to the poll should be.

John McCormick, Electoral Commissioner for Scotland said:

“Voters are entitled to a referendum which produces a result they can have confidence in. The recommendations we have made today are an important part of giving voters that confidence. But it is of course for the Scottish Parliament to have the final say.”

Question assessment

The Commission was asked to test the following question by the Scottish Government:

“Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? Yes/No”

The Commission’s established question assessment process involved talking to people across Scotland, asking for advice from accessibility and plain language experts, and writing to people and organisations, including the main political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament and campaigners to seek their views.

We found that the language in the proposed question is clear, simple and easy to understand. However, we also concluded that the words ‘Do you agree’ potentially encouraged people to vote ‘yes’ and should be replaced by more neutral wording.

The Electoral Commission recommends the question should be altered to:

“Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes / No”

The research also showed that voters want factual information ahead of the referendum. In the event of a “Yes” vote there would be a range of issues to be resolved within the UK and internationally about the terms of independence.

Although we would not expect the terms of independence to be agreed before the vote, clarity about how the terms of independence will be decided would help voters understand how the competing claims made by campaigners before the referendum will be resolved. 

The Commission has therefore recommended that the UK and Scottish Governments should clarify what process will follow the referendum, for either outcome, so that people have that information before they vote.  To avoid confusion we have asked the Governments to agree a joint position if possible.

John McCormick, Electoral Commissioner for Scotland said:

“We have rigorously tested the proposed question, speaking to a wide range of people across Scotland. Any referendum question must be, and be seen to be, neutral. People told us that they felt the words ‘Do you agree’ could lead voters towards voting ‘yes’.

“People had a clear understanding that ‘independent country’ meant being separate from the UK. But they did want factual information in advance about what will happen after the referendum. We’re asking the UK and Scottish Government to provide that clarity and we’ll then make sure it gets to voters as part of our public awareness campaign.”

Campaign spending limits

As part of the Edinburgh Agreement the Electoral Commission was asked to provide advice on the spending limits for the referendum campaign.

In deciding what advice to give the Commission has applied its established principles for well-run referendums, taking into account the specific circumstances of this referendum, including the Edinburgh Agreement and information we now have about the likely shape and scale of campaigning. 

The Commission invited views from campaigners and political parties on what the limits should be, and has considered what campaigners will need in order to put their arguments to voters. 

John McCormick, Electoral Commissioner for Scotland said:

“The campaign spending limits we have recommended are designed to ensure there are no barriers to voters hearing from campaigners in what will be a historic vote for the people of Scotland.

“We have listened carefully to the views of the Scottish Government and to campaigners, and have set out proposals based on our principles that spending limits should allow effective campaigning for all outcomes, deter excessive spending and encourage transparency.”

The Electoral Commission recommends that campaign spending limits for the independence referendum should be:

Designated lead campaigners: £1,500,000

Political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament:

Scottish National Party: £1,344,000
Scottish Labour: £834,000
Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party: £396,000
Scottish Liberal Democrats: £201,000
Scottish Green Party: £150,000

Other registered campaigners: £150,000

Threshold for registration: £10,000   


For further information and to arrange interviews contact:

Sarah Mackie in the Electoral Commission press office in Edinburgh on 0131 225 0204 or

Karim Aziz in the Electoral Commission press office in London on 020 7271 0704 or

Out of office hours 07789 920 414

Notes to editor

1. The Electoral Commission is an independent body set up by the UK Parliament. Our aim is integrity and public confidence in the UK’s democratic process. We regulate party and election finance and set standards for well-run elections and are responsible for the conduct and regulations of referendums held under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2000).

We are responsible for publishing reports on the administration of elections and referendums. Specifically in relation to council elections in Scotland we undertake a number of roles relating to the administration of the elections for which we report directly to the Scottish Parliament.

2. The Electoral Commission appointed Ipsos-MORI Scotland to carry out a qualitative research exercise to see how people reacted to and understood the question.

The testing used a combination of one-to-one in-depth interviews and focus groups to test the question among a sample of 265 participants in a range of locations across Scotland.

3. In 2010, the Electoral Commission set out its principles for formulating advice on spending limits for PPERA referendums in particular parts of the UK. These are that limits should be set at a level which:

• allows effective campaigning for all outcomes at a referendum
• deters excessive spending, and
• is not too low as to distort reasonable campaigning behaviour and affect transparency, for instance by giving campaigners an artificial incentive to split their spending between multiple campaigning bodies.

The Scottish Government’s proposed spending limits were:

Designated lead campaigners: £750,000

Political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament:

Scottish National Party: £250,000
Scottish Labour: £250,000
Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party: £250,000
Scottish Liberal Democrats: £250,000
Scottish Green Party: £250,000

Other registered campaigners: £50,000