Leader: ‘The answer, not the question, is key’

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IN the week in which we celebrated our own Bard’s birthday it seems a shame to massage a line from William Shakespeare.

But if there was a dominant theme in Scottish politics this week it was “To be or not to be . . . independent. That is the question”.

In fact, the row over the wording for the independence referendum is the most meaningful debate so far in what is sure to be a lengthy war of words.

It has been a largely phony war so far, featuring more posturing by politicians than in-depth thinking on important issues like how an independent Scotland might defend itself, use its fiscal powers or engage with the world.

But the “question question” is a fair starting point for more thoughtful debate.

And Alex Salmond is to be credited for opening the negotiations with his proposal for a clear, concise question: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

However, the wording – or more accurately, the reaction to it – showed exactly why the referendum needs to be put in non-partisan, independent hands like those of the Electoral Commission.

Mr Salmond’s rivals claim his question is loaded because it invites voters to agree with a presumption in favour of independence.

They may have a point, but the wider problem is that too many people are focusing on the referendum question, when the attention should be on the answer.

It would be simpler, surely, for the referendum paper to ask “What should be Scotland’s constitutional future?”

Then there would be a choice of two, equally pitched answers: “Scotland should be an independent country” and “Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom”.

And, yes, there should be just two choices – not a third favouring more powers for Holyrood within the UK under “Devo Max”.

That may well be what Scots eventually choose, but the important thing for now is an unambiguous answer on the central and divisive question of independence.

Anything else will just fudge the outcome – and risk the war of words continuing even longer.