The status quo tends to triumph in British referendumsby Peter Kellner / May 28, 2015 / Leave a comment
Is David Cameron trying to pull a fast one? We now know the wording he wants for his in-out referendum on British membership of the EU. It could scarcely be simpler: “Should the UK remain a member of the European Union?” We shall be asked to vote “yes” or “no”.
Not surprisingly, Ukip’s Nigel Farage says the question is unfair: “It is a simple straightforward, unambiguous question. That much is clear. However that Cameron is opting to give the pro-EU side the positive ‘Yes’ suggests strongly that his negotiations are so much fudge. He has already decided which way he wants the answer to be given, without a single power repatriated.”
Let’s leave aside our views about how much we like Cameron, Farage or Brussels. Objectively, does Ukip’s leader have a point? After all, psychologists say that people prefer to say “yes” rather than “no”; and we pollsters generally avoid “yes/no” answer options when testing people’s attitudes. We normally ask whether respondents agree or disagree with a proposition, or whether they support or oppose a policy idea.
A referendum, however, is not like a polling question, asked out of the blue. Voting comes at the end of a campaign in which both sides have the chance to make their case. By referendum day, people generally know which side they are on. It seems unlikely that the precise form of words on the ballot paper makes much difference.
Indeed, that is the lesson from the five major yes/no referendums in the UK over the past four decades. Here are the questions asked, and the results.
1975 UK-wide referendum: “Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?” Yes 68%, No 32%
1979 Scottish referendum on devolution: Do you want the provisions of the Scotland Act 1978 to be put into effect? Yes 51%, No 49%. (However, the “Yes” vote comprised 33% of the electorate and fell short of the 40% needed in this occasion for devolution to take effect)
1979 Welsh referendum on devolution: “Do you want the provisions of the Wales Act 1978 to be put into effect?” Yes 20%, No 80%
2011 UK-wide referendum on electoral system: “At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect…