British Prime Minister David Cameron signed an agreement with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond on on the terms of an independence referendum, setting the stage for two years of debate on splitting up the U.K.
Television pictures from the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, showed Cameron and Salmond putting their signatures on the document and shaking hands.
“I welcome the chance actually to get on with making the choice, taking away the worry on whether or not in the future we’ll become independent,” Michael Moore, the U.K. Cabinet minister responsible for Scottish affairs, told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program this morning. “Of course, Scotland could operate on its own; it could become independent. The question is what’s better for us?”
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.
“When referendums are used to resolve national divisions, the status quo tends to prevail,” YouGov President Peter Kellner said in an e-mailed commentary. “Normally it requires a consensus for change for a referendum to produce a ‘Yes’ majority. No such consensus currently exists in Scotland and none seems likely.”
The signing of the accord after months of discussions between the governments in London and Edinburgh will shift the focus from the intricacies of the vote to the merits of independence.
“This marks the beginning of an important chapter in Scotland’s story and allows the real debate to begin,” Cameron said in the Scottish capital. “It is now up to the people of Scotland to make that historic decision. The very future of Scotland depends on their verdict.”
Cameron’s U.K. coalition government succeeded in narrowing the referendum to a single question rather than two options, while acceding to the demands of Salmond’s Scottish National Party for 16- and 17-year-olds to take part in the ballot and to delay the vote until 2014, the Sunday Times newspaper said yesterday. That would coincide with the 700th anniversary of the Scottish victory over the English at the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn.
“The timing, the question, the franchise, all issues that at the start of the year David Cameron was making noises about Westminster controlling, all those things will now be determined by the Scottish Parliament,” Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who represented the pro-independence Scottish National Party in talks with the U.K. government, told Sky News. “The outcome we’ve reached guarantees a referendum made in Scotland.”
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 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.”
Salmond also succeeded in clinching an agreement that his SNP government should be able to determine the wording of the question, the Times said. Some Scottish politicians had pressed for a yes-or-no vote on independence as well as asking separately whether Scotland’s self-governing powers should be expanded within the union.
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.
The Sunday Times published a YouGov poll 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.
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