Play it straight.

Photograph: THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images

Cameron's Trick Question on U.K's Future in EU

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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The U.K. government has promised a referendum on whether the nation should stay in the European Union or try its luck in splendid isolation outside the trading bloc. The stakes are high; and with the immigration issue splashed across the front pages of newspapers throughout Europe, a small setback for British Europhiles this week is a timely reminder that there's a non-negligible risk that the vote might prove harder to win than opinion polls currently suggest.

QuickTake Will Britain Leave the EU?

After almost presiding over the breakup of the U.K. in last year's vote on Scottish Independence, you can't blame Prime Minister David Cameron for wanting to tip the scales in his favor. But on Monday, the U.K.'s election watchdog rejected Cameron's proposed plebiscite wording. The Electoral Commission rebuffed "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?" with the options of `Yes' and `No' answers, arguing that it risked a "perception of bias." Instead, the question will be reworded to "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" The response options will be "Remain a member of the European Union" or "Leave the European Union." Cameron is expected to pose the question sometime next year.

The original question had the potential to prey on voters' tendency to favor positive responses over negative ones, something psychologists call the "framing effect." We're more likely to buy beef, for example, when it's packaged as 75 percent lean meat than if it's described as 25 percent fat.

"'Remaining' and 'leaving' are clear and impartial," said Timothy Bates, a psychology professor at the University of Edinburgh, in response to e-mailed questions. "Unlike 'yes' and 'no' they don’t create an acquiescence bias -- neither presents a default option, as both can be good or bad. Both options also have the benefit of being explicit about the decision being made."

It's easy to see why Cameron tried to gain even the slim advantage that his original question might have offered, after the government almost blew last year's referendum on Scottish independence. By allowing Scottish nationalists to frame the question as "Should Scotland be an independent country," those in favor of secession had the upper hand. The Electoral Commission hasn't fallen for the same trick on Europe.

"The election watchdog was quite right to blow the whistle on the original version, in my opinion," Andrew Colman, a psychology professor at the University of Leicester, said in response to e-mailed questions. "The original question would definitely have been biased in the same way that the Scottish referendum question was -- deliberately, I believe, in the case of the Scottish referendum. The revised version is much fairer, and I'm sure this will make a difference."

Cameron has to tread a tricky line between campaigning in favor of sticking with the EU, but not appearing guilty of cheating to get his way. Recent opinion polls consistently show a plurality of voters favor staying in the EU; pollster YouGov's monthly results this year indicate between 43 and 46 percent of voters lean that way, with those wanting to leave at 33 to 37 percent. The `don't knows," however, hold the balance with as much as 18 percent. And while Britons are more in favor of the EU than not, YouGov's polls asking voters in different countries whether they support the bloc show the U.K. remains less enthusiastic than its neighbors:

Moreover, after opinion polls failed to predict the outcome of U.K. parliamentary elections earlier this year, there are at least two reasons to be skeptical of the current readings on the EU. First, YouGov's polling suggests Britons don't seem to expect that an anti-EU referendum outcome will actually lead to an exit. Instead, it's seen as a political bargaining tool for Cameron to wring more concessions from his EU partners:

The second referendum issue is an echo of what may have gone wrong in the polls for the U.K. election, when what pollsters have dubbed "Shy Tories" were too embarrassed to voice their support for the incumbent government. Similarly, voters who believe EU membership makes Britain's borders too porous for immigration but who don't want to appear bigoted may be wary of admitting their anti-EU sentiments. "The polls show a strong majority in favor of staying in, but the migrant issue, which may well play a huge part in helping people to decide, is a tricky one, because people are afraid of being labelled racists if they express concern," said Colman at the University of Leicester. "The polls may underestimate the 'Leave' vote, I predict."

The government was unbelievably late in realizing that it was losing the argument in Scotland. If Cameron is serious about keeping Britain in the EU, he needs to show more leadership in the current immigration debate, and start campaigning early to persuade the 'don't knows' that in Europe, as in the U.K., we're better together.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net