Scots to vote in 2014 referendum on whether to leave United Kingdom
Leaders of Scotland and Britain sign an agreement for a historic referendum, which could see the 300-year-old union come to an end
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Britain's prime minister and Scotland's first minister signed an agreement yesterday to hold a referendum on Scottish independence that could lead to the United Kingdom breaking up after 300 years.
Prime Minister David Cameron strongly opposes a Scottish breakaway, and the signing of the terms fired the starting gun on two years of campaigning, pitching the leaders on opposite sides.
After months of negotiations, Cameron met Alex Salmond in Edinburgh to give Scotland's administration the power to conduct the referendum in the final quarter of 2014, offering Scots a straight yes-no question on leaving the United Kingdom.
"Scotland's two governments have come together to deliver a referendum that will be legal, fair and decisive," Cameron said.
"It paves the way so that the biggest question of all can be settled: a separate Scotland or a United Kingdom? I will be making a very positive argument for our United Kingdom."
Salmond said before the meeting: "The agreement will see Scotland take an important step towards independence, and the means to create a fairer and more prosperous Scotland.
"I look forward to working positively for a yes vote in 2014."
Cameron's Conservatives will be joined by their Liberal Democrat coalition partners in the British Parliament and the opposition Labour Party in urging voters to keep Britain together.
The marathon campaign will pit them against Salmond's Scottish National Party (SNP), the majority party in the devolved Parliament in Edinburgh.
Support among Scots for independence appears to be slipping, with a survey by pollsters TNS-BMRB released last week showing 28 per cent in favour and 53 per cent opposed.
Salmond has said that he wanted independence "not because I think we are better than any other country, but because I know that we are as good as any other country".
The SNP had pressed for the 2014 date, giving it time to try to woo voters and coinciding with the anniversary of the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn - a famous Scots victory over the English.
The vote is expected to break new ground by including 16- and 17-year-olds, a move favoured by Salmond's side. But in a concession to the British government, the ballot paper will not offer a second question on increased devolution.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon denied that the lack of this option was a defeat for the Scottish government.
She told BBC radio: "We have never said we wanted a second question on the ballot paper. What we did say was that option shouldn't be ruled out prematurely.
"But in any negotiation there has to be compromise. Both sides have compromised, but overall I'm very satisfied that we have a deal that guarantees a referendum made in Scotland."
Michael Moore, the British minister responsible for Scotland, said it was stronger as part of the United Kingdom.
"The opportunities in continuing to be part of the United Kingdom are strong," he told BBC radio.
"What we've not had so far is anybody spelling out what independence will look like. There are lots of risks attached to it which have not yet been thought through by the SNP."
Salmond, who has pushed for a referendum since his party won a majority in the Scottish parliament last year, says Scotland - with five million people - should be able to run its own foreign, economic and defence policies.
The devolved Scottish government currently has powers over areas such as health and education, as well as a separate legal system.
A potential separation raises questions about what would happen to revenues from North Sea oil reserves.
Salmond has said he wanted to retain the sterling currency and the British monarch as head of state.