Prime Minister David Cameron signed an accord with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond on the terms of an independence referendum by the end of 2014, setting the stage for two years of debate on splitting up the U.K.
After a meeting of about an hour today in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, Cameron and Salmond put their signatures on the document and shook hands. The six-page accord consists of 30 points of detail about the rules and timing of the vote.
Polls have shown that more Scots oppose independence than support a breakaway. The most recent YouGov Plc survey, carried out in July, showed 54 percent of respondents against compared with 30 percent in favor, with 16 percent undecided.
At a news conference after the signing, Salmond acknowledged the battle ahead and pointed to his Scottish National Party’s growing success in recent elections. He said he’s sure he can win. “Just as I have believed in independence all my life, I believe that with all my soul,” he told reporters.
Salmond insisted independence would be in Scotland’s interest and rejected any similarity between his own proposed post-independence currency union with England, using the pound, and that of the countries in the European single currency.
“The problem with the comparison is the different productivity in the areas of the euro zone,” he said. “That’s a totally different situation from the parts of the U.K. I would think that is a pretty false analogy between one that’s an optimal currency area and one that’s not optimal.”
The first minister opened by talking about “home rule,” rather than independence, describing the vote as “a step on the journey.”
Michael Moore, the Liberal Democrat U.K. Cabinet minister responsible for Scottish affairs, who supports the union, replied that he doesn’t want to see another plebiscite in a few years if Salmond loses this one.
“I’m confident that this referendum now will give us the decisive outcome will resolve the issue that’s lurked around Scottish politics for decades,” he told reporters. “Game on.”
According to YouGov President Peter Kellner, referendums tend to favor the status quo. “Normally it requires a consensus for change for a referendum to produce a ‘Yes’ majority,” he said in an e-mailed comment. “No such consensus currently exists in Scotland and none seems likely.”
Cameron’s U.K. coalition government succeeded in narrowing the referendum to a single yes-or-no question rather than two options, while acceding to the demands of the SNP for 16- and 17-year-olds to take part and to delay the vote until 2014. The Scottish Parliament will determine the wording of the question.
The planned date coincides with the 700th anniversary of the Scottish victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. Some Scottish politicians had pressed for a separate question on whether Scotland’s self-governing powers should be expanded within the union, as well as the yes-or-no vote on independence.
“What we have is what I’ve always wanted: one single, simple question,” Cameron said. “That for me was always the key.”
He said that further devolution of powers to Scotland’s Parliament would be possible if Scottish voters decide against leaving the U.K.
Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, a Scottish member of the opposition Labour Party who is leading the campaign against independence, told the BBC’s “Sunday Politics” show yesterday that an earlier vote would have been better.
“I would have preferred to have had this referendum in the autumn of 2013 because, frankly, a two-year election campaign, longer than they take to elect the president of the United States, is going to try the patience of the public,” he said. Still, “I’m pleased that we’ve got this agreement, particularly on there being one question.”
The agreement paves the way for an extended debate on the economic benefits of Scotland’s membership of the U.K. That may herald bickering over the ownership of revenues from the oil off Scottish shores, how Britain’s public debt might be divided if independence is chosen, what currency the Scots would use, whether they could remain in the European Union and who might foot the bill if their banks need another bailout.
If Salmond wins, he said, he’d expect independence negotiations to begin immediately, with a view to elections for an independent Scottish Parliament in 2016.
The Sunday Times newspaper published a YouGov poll yesterday showing 29 percent of U.K. voters said England and Wales would be worse off without Scotland, 26 percent reckoned they would be better off, and 31 percent predicted no difference. The questioning of 1,902 people Oct. 11 and Oct. 12 also gave Labour 43 percent of the national vote, 10 points ahead of the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats, Cameron’s coalition partners, had 10 percent.
In a VisionCritical poll of 2,009 people questioned on the same dates for the Sunday Express, Labour got the same result, with a 12-point lead over the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats had 8 percent. That poll showed only 4 percent of voters see Scottish independence as the most pressing issue facing the U.K., rising to 13 percent in Scotland.