Scotland secures terms for 2014 independence vote
Britain’s prime minister and Scotland’s first minister have fired the starting gun on a two-year campaign for the hearts and minds of Scottish voters ahead of an independence referendum to be held in 2014.
Prime Minister David Cameron and pro-independence First Minister Alex Salmond inked the deal and shook hands in cold autumn sunlight on Monday after a meeting at the Scottish government building, St Andrews House, in Edinburgh.
Cameron strongly opposes a Scottish breakaway which would end 300 years of union, while Salmond’s Scottish National Party (SNP) espouses an independent Scotland.
After months of negotiations, the Edinburgh deal clears the way for Scotland’s administration to hold the vote in the last quarter of 2014, offering Scots a straight yes-no question on leaving the United Kingdom.
Securing the vote was a victory for veteran politician Salmond, who has spent his political career backing the idea of an independent Scotland, but he faces an uphill battle to bring a majority of Scots around to his view.
He told reporters after the signing: “I’m delighted to say that the Edinburgh agreement... paves the way for the most important decision Scotland has made in several hundred years.
“I believe that independence will win this campaign. I believe we’ll win it by setting out a better future for our country,” he said.
His SNP, the majority party in Edinburgh’s devolved parliament, must fight against a “No” campaign from all three big parties in the British parliament: Cameron’s Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour.
Cameron said: “This is an important day for our United Kingdom, but you can’t hold a country in the United Kingdom against the will of its people.
“Scotland voted for a party that wanted to hold a referendum. I believe in showing respect. This is the right outcome for Scotland and for the United Kingdom to give the people the choice.
“But I passionately hope and believe that they will vote to keep the United Kingdom together. We are better off together, we are stronger together, we are safer together.”
A survey by ComRes for ITV News released on Monday showed only 34 per cent of Scots and 29 per cent of all Britons in favour while other polls have shown similar results.
But Salmond urged pundits not to write him off too soon, citing his party’s surprise election victory in May last year, which gave it a parliamentary majority and opened the door for the referendum.
“We turned a substantial opinion poll deficit into a substantial election victory. We did that by winning the arguments,” he said.
“We intend to win the argument for independence.”
The Guardian newspaper praised the British government for granting the vote, but acknowledged it was a risky move.
“The UK government deserves credit for this approach. It is the democratic path,” said on Tuesday’s editorial.
“But it may look like reckless overconfidence if Scotland votes yes. Don’t underestimate this moment.”
The SNP had pressed for the 2014 date, giving them time to try to win over voters and coinciding with the anniversary of the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn, a famous Scots victory over the English.
The vote is to break new ground by including 16 and 17-year-olds in the electorate, a move favoured by Salmond’s side, but in a concession to the British government the ballot paper will not offer a third option of increased devolution.
The Times said the inclusion of younger voters was “an indication of his [Salmond’s] underlying lack of confidence in his own case.”
“Instead of changing his arguments he has decided to try to change the voters,” argued Tuesday’s editorial.
The SNP says Scotland - with a population of five million - should be able to run its own foreign, economic and defence policies, and plans to set out fuller terms of the proposed separation within a year.
The devolved Scottish government currently has powers over areas such as health and education, as well as a separate legal system.
Salmond wants to retain the sterling currency and the British monarch as head of state, but big questions remain such as the fate of revenues from North Sea oil reserves and the debt incurred by Royal Bank of Scotland’s state bailout.
There are also major questions about whether an independent Scotland would automatically join the European Union and Nato.
An independent Scotland would hold its first parliamentary elections in 2016 and then draft a written constitution, Salmond said.