By Carsten Volkery in London
They have been talking about it for the last 300 years and now they're finally getting serious: in the autumn of 2014, the Scots will hold a referendum on whether to become an independent state. British Prime Minister David Cameron and the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, on Monday signed an agreement in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, outlining the terms of the vote.
Scotland's voters will get to decide with a simple Yes or No whether the union between England and Scotland, which has existed since 1707, should be dissolved. They will not be given the chance to vote on any half-way measures such as greater autonomy for Scotland within Great Britain, though. It is now up to the Scottish regional parliament to decide on the exact phrasing of the question to be voted on.
Both Cameron and Salmond said it was a historic day. But they didn't give a joint press conference -- Cameron, who opposes Scotland's push for independence, wanted to keep his distance from Scotland's nationalist leader. The Prime Minister said he was confident that the Scots would vote to keep the union and that Britain would be stronger if it stayed together.
"I passionately believe that Scotland would be better off in the United Kingdom but also crucially that the United Kingdom would be better off with Scotland," said Cameron. "I will be arguing to keep the family together."
The independence question has dominated Scottish politics for centuries. The government of Tony Blair, responding to growing demands for more self-determination, agreed to so-called devolution in 1998. Edinburgh got its own parliament and regional government, which have powers over education, justice and health policies. But the independence movement has gained force since Salmond's Scottish National Party became the strongest party in the parliament in 2007. Last year, the separatists won an absolute majority, making a referendum inevitable.
Conservatives Criticize Cameron
Many in Cameron's Conservative Party say he shouldn't have bowed to the demands of the Scottish nationalists. He could now become the Prime Minister under whom the kingdom broke apart. But Cameron evidently believed he had little choice. The people of Scotland could not be kept in Britain against their will, he said, adding that a majority of them had elected a party that wanted a referendum and that he respected the wishes of voters.
Salmon needed Cameron's blessing because his regional government has no constitutional powers. The agreement signed in Edinburgh gave the Scottish government the temporary right to hold a referendum.
The compromise followed months of horsetrading. Salmond had already presented a roadmap for the referendum in January in which he had envisaged two questions: in case of a No to independence, he also wanted to ask voters if they favored greater autonomy for Scotland. Cameron had categorically refused this option because he wants to end the debate once and for all. The Prime Minister hopes that a No vote in a referendum will undermine the Scottish nationalist, whose popularity stems in part from promises for ever greater independence.
Opinion polls show that at most a third of Scots want to break away from Great Britain. Most of them want more powers for the regional parliament.
But Salmond won a concession from London to allow Scotland to lower the voting age to 16 from Britain's countrywide 18 -- he believes that young people are more likely to vote in favor of independence. However, opinion polls suggest people that age won't vote differently from the rest of the population.
Can Scotland Afford to Be Independent?
Cameron wanted to hold the referendum as soon as possible, but Salmond wanted to delay it. In 2014, Scotland will host the Ryder Cup and the Commonwealth Games, two major sporting events that Salmond hopes will make the Scots more patriotic.
Now that the procedural questions have been settled, both camps can concentrate on their campaigns. Cameron made a start even before he met Salmond on Monday with a highly symbolic visit to a shipyard in Rosyth near Edinburgh where the biggest British warship ever, the aircraft carrier "HMS Queen Elizabeth II," will be built.
The images from the shipyard were meant to send an unspoken but clear message: that independence will lead to the loss of lucrative orders and jobs.
The central question in the two-year campaign running up to the referendum will be whether Scotland can afford to be independent. The British government has avoided casting any doubt on this in public because it doesn't want to stir Scottish national pride. But this is doubtless its strongest argument. Unlike other European regions striving for independence such as Catalonia in Spain or Flanders in Belgium, Scotland isn't Britain's econonimc engine. The public sector here is bigger than in England and state spending per capita is as well.
The nationalists point to the oil platforms, most of them Scottish-owned, whose revenues currently flow into the British budget. But they amount to just 8.8 billion pounds (10.9 billion, $14.2 billion) per year. Salmond likes to compare an independent Scotland to Scandinavian countries. They too are relatively small but have strong welfare states and are economically successful. He assures skeptics that an independent Scotland would continue to have close economic links with Britain through open borders. Scotland's strongest private sector industry is banking. In the boom years, Edinburgh became the country's second-biggest financial center after London.
But there is no proof that Scotland would be better off on its own, and the most likely scenario is that the Scots will vote against independence. Even if they do, they can still hope to get even more autonomy. Cameron has already hinted that he would be open to negotiations on that.
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