SCOTS will go to the polls in the historic vote to decide the nation’s future on Thursday, 18 September, 2014, it was announced.
• Independence questions confirmed as “Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes/No”
The countdown to the independence referendum was kick-started by First Minister Alex Salmond when he revealed the date at the Scottish Parliament.
The date for the vote, which is earlier than many had predicted, was contained in the Scottish Independence Referendum Bill formally lodged at Holyrood by Mr Salmond. It leaves 546 days for the campaigns to make their respective cases.
Mr Salmond claimed the 146-page document was “the most important legislation to have been introduced since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened – not in itself, but what it enables Scotland to achieve with the powers of an independent country”.
The First Minister said the referendum “will be the truly historic day for our nation – the day when the people will decide Scotland’s future”.
But Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said: “If the hand of history is on the First Minister’s shoulder, I wish it would give him a shove and he’d get on with it.”
The bill confirmed the question on the ballot paper will be: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” It also confirmed the Electoral Commission will oversee the poll and the campaign spending limits.
Mr Salmond said he was “honoured” to announce the referendum date, which he described as part of a journey travelled by Scotland since “the restoration of our parliament here in the heart of our ancient capital”.
He went on: “I believe it will be the day we take responsibility for our country, when we are able to speak with our own voice, choose our own direction and contribute in our own distinct way; the day we stand up on our own two feet, but do not stand alone.”
The proposed legislation, which is expected to receive Royal Assent in December after passing through parliament, sets out how the referendum will work and lays down rules governing the conduct of the Yes and No campaigns.
The public will have to wait a further six months for the white paper that will outline how the SNP government envisages independence working.
Some sources had suggested the Scottish Government would go for date in October next year for the referendum. Instead, it will take place before the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Perthshire, one of the events that commentators had assumed would be used to build up a feel-good factor in the run-up to the poll.
Crucially, it will take place before the conferences of the main UK political parties – events that would have been used to argue unashamedly for the Union had the vote been in October.
As expected, the referendum will be after the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, which take place in the summer, and after June’s re-enactment of the Battle of Bannockburn to commemorate the 700th anniversary of Scotland’s victory over England.
A policy paper issued with the draft legislation set out the spending limits for the main organisations for and against independence at £1.5 million.
The limit is consistent with that recommended by the Electoral Commission, as are those for the Holyrood parties, which are allowed to spend between £150,000 and £1.3 million –the lower sum being the Scottish Greens’ maximum and the higher one the SNP’s. Other permitted participants – individuals or organisations accepted by the Electoral Commission – will be able to spend £150,000.
The referendum will be preceded by a 16-week formal campaigning period, beginning at the end of May, during which the spending limits will apply.
The Scottish Government’s plans to extend the voting franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds will be brought forward in separate legislation.
The bill is expected to be scrutinised by MSPs on Holyrood’s referendum bill committee between May and June. They will report back in early September.
The first of three votes needed for it to become law will be held in the Scottish Parliament later that month. In October, second-stage scrutiny will take place, ahead of a final vote in the full chamber in mid-November.
Mr Salmond acknowledged the “consensus and co-operation” between the Scottish and UK governments which led to the Edinburgh Agreement, the deal that transferred powers from London to Edinburgh to hold the poll.
But, inevitably, the fundamental differences of opinion that divide the SNP and the pro-Union parties were in evidence after the date was announced.
Ms Lamont said people would breathe a “sigh of relief” now there was a date for the end of the constitutional debate and politicians could move on to dealing with “real issues”.
“Until then, Scotland remains on pause,” she said. “What I do not understand is why, if leaving the United Kingdom is the key to Scotland’s prosperity, why he [Mr Salmond] wants Scotland to languish for another year and a half before we get the chance to vote on it.
“The truth behind the delay is not that he is holding to a promise made to the electorate in a TV debate. The truth is Alex Salmond knows if he held the referendum now he wouldn’t just lose it he would be routed.”
She added: “All the self-aggrandisement of today isn’t just a sign of the First Minister’s usual pomposity. Making an occasion out of a delayed announcements is an attempt to con the people into believing that we have moved a step towards independence when we haven’t.”
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said voters would now “demand and desire information they can trust on which to base this most important of decisions”.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie urged the First Minister to join him and others to “develop a new consensus for more powers for the Scottish Parliament” if people voted No to independence.
Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore said: “I am glad people in Scotland have now been told the proposed date for the referendum.
“The debate about Scotland’s future has already begun and will only intensify, and that is something I look forward to. I am confident when Scots go to the polls they will vote in favour of Scotland staying within a strong and secure UK family.”
The key details include:
• The date: Thursday, 18 September, 2014.
• The question: Should Scotland be an independent country?
• The referee: The Electoral Commission.
• Campaign spending limits: From £150,000 (the Greens) up to £1.3 million (the SNP).
• Official campaign start date: 29 May, 2014.
21 MARCH: Introduction and publication of the bill
EARLY SEPTEMBER: ‘Stage 1’ report on the bill published
MID-SEPTEMBER: ‘Stage 1’ debate in the chamber on Referendum Bill
EARLY OCTOBER TO MID-OCTOBER: ‘Stage 2’ scrutiny of the bill takes place
MID-NOVEMBER: ‘Stage 3’ of the bill in the chamber
December – Royal Assent
22-25 MAY: European elections
29 May: 16 weeks before referendum, beginning of formal campaign period, under which spending limits apply
24 JUNE: 700th anniversary of Battle of Bannockburn
23 JULY TO 3 AUGUST: Commonwealth Games in Glasgow
28 JULY: 100th anniversary of outbreak of the Great War
18 SEPTEMBER: Referendum date
26-28 SEPTEMBER: Ryder Cup at Gleneagles