Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?

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“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”

That is the question proposed in Section 1(4) of the European Union Referendum Bill (HC Bill 2). The equivalent question in Welsh will also be posed for voters in Wales.  No, no Gaelic in Scotland, no Cornish in Cornwall, and definitely no Spanish in Gibraltar.

This hands a perceived advantage to the pro-Europeans as they get to identify as the “Yes” camp.  This was thought to be of some significance in the recent independence  referendum in Scotland – although referenda in Gibraltar have survived with healthy majorities for “No”, and of course it was the “Noes” that ultimately prevailed last year in Scotland.

The wording includes the insertion of the term “remain” suggested by the Electoral Commission, in case some people were not aware that this was already the case. Fair enough. By that logic, the referendum question in 2014 should have been: “Should Scotland become an independent country?” Maybe next time …

The language of the referendum is less important perhaps when the result is certain.  Thus, in the Falklands in 2013, the question was “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?”, but may as well have been asking they wanted to become a suburb of Buenos Aires. Astonishly, 3 votes out of over 1,500 were cast for “no”. According to the Guardian (12 March 2013), some islanders were talking about rooting those three out and shipping them off to Argentina – their reputations “destroyed”.

A referendum with a similarly sure-fire outcome was the one in Gibraltar in 2002, which came with an alarmingly long preamble, before cutting to the chase, with this question: “Do you approve of the principle that Britain and Spain should share sovereignty over Gibraltar?”  In that case, the “Yes” campaign mustered 187 votes out of nearly 100 times that many cast.

Past Scottish referendum questions have been slightly more suspect in their wording, with both questions in the 1997 vote on devolution employing a “Do you agree …” formula weighted towards the Government’s preferred option.  In 1979, the question relied on the electorate having done some pretty heavy reading by way of preparation for the posed: “Do you want the Provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect?”

Of course, ultimately the question is less important than the answer given. Which, for the avoidance of doubt, should be an emphatic “Yes”.

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