I have to praise David Cameron for immediately accepting the advice of the Electoral Commission and changing the question posed in the EU referendum. Posing a “yes” and “no” question immediately creates what social scientists call the “acquiescence bias” towards “yes” as we are naturally inclined to agree with a statement put to us when in doubt. The question will now look like this:
‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union, or leave the European Union?’
- Remain a member of the European Union
- Leave the European Union
This is clearly a fairer question than the originally planned “yes” and “no” dynamic. According to ICM Research polling a neutral question halves the gap between the two sides, with the vote for staying in still ahead. Although David Cameron is determined to keep the UK in the EU he has a duty to ensure the referendum is as fair as possible. If he fails in this, he will risk the legitimacy of the result as well as tarnishing his reputation and causing future political instability as the debate about the EU rages on for years.
The prime minister now must go further. It is absolutely imperative that there is a “purdah” period before the vote to prevent the government using all its resources to campaign for one side right until the referendum takes place. If there is no purdah, there is no legitimacy, because the result would be skewed by government propaganda.
There must be a grand bargain within the Conservative Party that allows all MPs, including Ministers, to follow their conscience and campaign and vote on whichever side they desire. This is an incredibly important debate about the future of the United Kingdom, for the sake of freedom of expression, and in order to prevent the referendum tearing the party apart; allow MPs to take sides as they wish, and let Ministers express themselves freely in the debate after the “renegotiation”. Gagging Ministers will lead to resentment, resignations and political turmoil.
This debate is already heavily leaning towards staying in the European Union, with the government machine, and that of the European Union, and the entire British establishment looking to preserve the status quo. If David Cameron, and indeed anyone campaigning to keep us in, wants to prevent a post-referendum anti-EU uprising, and years of political instability, they must win the debate fair and square ensuring the playing field is as even as possible.