I'm almost embarrassed for BMG Research. For extremely good reasons, it's become the industry standard to ask the actual 2014 referendum question when polling on independence. Although we don't know what the exact question will be in a future indyref, it's highly unlikely that the SNP government would ever sign off on a question that frames the issue in a radically different way, and there's absolutely no reason why they should - because the 2014 question was not only approved by the Electoral Commission, it was chosen by them!
The other crucial point, of course, is that it's not possible to meaningfully measure whether support for independence has increased or decreased since 2014 if you depart too radically (or indeed depart at all) from the actual referendum question. So answers on a postcard, folks, as to why BMG have asked this unspeakably moronic question and then attempted to innocently portray it as a routine poll on independence from which meaningful conclusions can be drawn -
If a referendum were held tomorrow, on whether Scotland should leave or remain a member of the United Kingdom, how would you vote?
To leave the United Kingdom : 45.3%
To remain in the United Kingdom : 54.7%
For the avoidance of doubt, this isn't strictly speaking even a poll on independence. Even in the bad old days when YouGov were pushing their own agenda and trying to pejoratively reframe the independence question as being about "leaving the United Kingdom", they did at least get around at the end of the question to mentioning that it was also about Scotland becoming an independent country. The BMG question doesn't even do that. Leave the UK to do what? Join a federation with Norway? Become a province of Canada? We're not told.
And the question doesn't even make sense on its own terms. It's presumably an attempt to mimic the EU referendum question, but the difference is that the EU is an organisation that actually has members. The UK isn't like that - it's an incorporating political union in which Westminster claims total sovereignty. We even have legal experts who argue that Scotland was technically "extinguished" when it became part of the UK. When is the last time you can remember Nicola Sturgeon wielding her veto at the Council of Britain? Yeah, exactly.
So the question is not only shockingly biased, it's also complete gibberish. I'm struggling to remember the last time a question as bad as this was asked as a headline 'voting intention' question - I certainly can't think of one in the last five years. When YouGov finally made their own question more neutral in the run-up to the referendum, the Yes vote immediately shot up, which gave us an indication of just how sensitive respondents can be to the exact wording. I'm afraid, therefore, that the BMG poll is hopelessly tainted and the results must be regarded as practically worthless. Perhaps the only thing that can be taken from them is that it's pretty damn impressive that as much as 45% of the population insist on their wish to "leave the UK" even when confronted with such a stupid question.
What the hell is going on here? The poll was commissioned by The Herald, so in theory it's possible that they requested a non-standard question to make some sort of point or other, but the fact that they haven't made more of an issue of it in their own reporting of the poll leads me to conclude that probably isn't what happened. There's clearly some sort of agenda at play, and I think it may be at BMG. One important clue is what we witnessed yesterday with the reporting of another result from the same poll. As RevStu has already pointed out, the Herald bizarrely claimed that the poll found that a Hard Brexit would not be a "game-changer" for attitudes to a second indyref, when it fact it showed the complete polar opposite of that - a majority against holding a second referendum was transformed into a majority in favour of a referendum as soon as a Hard Brexit was assumed. While it's easy (and to some extent fair) to bash the Herald for making a black-is-white propaganda claim of that sort, it looks to me as if they may actually have been taking their lead directly from BMG - because the 'expert analysis' on the BMG website contained almost identical spin.
Let's take a step back for a moment. If a poll shows that Hard Brexit turns the answer to a question on its head, on what basis can BMG even pretend with a straight face that it doesn't constitute a "game-changer"? What they seem to be arguing is that because only a relatively small percentage of the overall sample (5.4% by my rough calculation) change their minds and embrace a referendum when Hard Brexit is mentioned, it doesn't actually matter that this is sufficient to swing the balance of the overall result. But just think about the implications of that logic. There was a widely-publicised Britain-wide ICM poll the other day that gave the Conservatives a mammoth 17% lead over Labour. If "only" 5.4% of the overall sample were to move directly from the Tories to Labour, that would slash the lead to around 6%. Would BMG seriously claim that such a change is not significant? If they did make that claim, people would laugh at them, and rightly so.
What we have, then, is a situation where a polling company puts an indefensible partisan spin on their own results on Thursday, and then on Friday publishes a poll which uses a leading question to produce a desired result. It's depressingly clear that we can no longer regard BMG as a politically neutral actor, at least in respect of Scottish polling. Precisely what their objective is, though, is harder to say. By breaking ranks on the consensus in favour of using the question "Should Scotland be an independent country?", and by doing so in a casual way without feeling any apparent need to justify or even explain such an extraordinary step, they may be trying to 'normalise' the use of leading questions in the future. Perhaps there's nothing more to it than a simple attempt to artificially suppress the reported support for independence, or perhaps they're also trying to influence people's thinking on what the actual referendum question 'should' be next time around. Either way, it's a nakedly political and partisan act, and one that brings shame upon a firm that - remarkably - is a member of the British Polling Council.