ALEX Salmond has been given until the end of 2014 to hold a referendum on the future of the Union, as part of the historic deal between the Scottish and UK governments that is set to be signed in Edinburgh today.
A “sunset clause” has been agreed as part of the deal that transfers the legal power to hold the referendum from Westminster to Holyrood, putting in place the strict condition that the vote is held within just over two years.
The First Minister and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, are today due to sign off the deal, which will see Scots asked a straight Yes or No question on Scottish independence, with no option for extra powers on the ballot paper.
The wording of the question and the decision on whether to allow those aged 16 and 17 to vote will be left to Holyrood. It is thought that 16- and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote in the referendum.
Both sides last night claimed victory over the deal, with Mr Salmond insisting the agreement represented an “important step towards independence”, as the countdown to the referendum officially began. However, former chancellor Alistair Darling, the leader of the Better Together campaign, claimed the unionist parties would now be able to “cut through some of the bluster and the nonsense” of the SNP.
The Scotsman understands that the deal will also hand an influential referendum role to the Electoral Commission in framing the question voters will be asked, as well as setting strict limits on campaign spending.
Other key parts of the agreement will see the electoral register for the referendum based on that used for Holyrood and Scottish local council elections, rather than Westminster votes that the UK government had originally pushed for.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she believed support for independence would increase in the run-up to the referendum in autumn 2014, as she insisted the Yes Scotland campaign had enough time to shift public opinion.
“The game has changed considerably in the last couple of weeks,” she said. “We now know there is a Tory-Labour consensus to roll back the progress of devolution, and whichever one of these parties is in government at Westminster, we know that they want to take away people’s bus passes, they want to take away free personal care and free prescriptions.”
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister will today say: “Scotland’s two governments have come together to deliver a referendum which will be legal, fair and decisive.
“This marks the beginning of an important chapter in Scotland’s story and allows the real debate to begin.
“It paves the way so that the biggest question of all can be settled: a separate Scotland or a United Kingdom? I will be making a very positive argument for our United Kingdom.”
Mr Cameron was yesterday accused of acting like Pontius Pilate over the terms of the deal by former Conservative Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth, who said agreement was a “walkover” for Mr Salmond and the SNP. Lord Forsyth said: “Salmond has been able to get what he wants. If that’s a negotiation, that’s stretching the language. It sounds like a walkover to me.
“What is going on here is the Prime Minister is Pontius Pilate. He is just saying: ‘Over to you, Alex’. Once that order is passed, it’s a matter for Alex Salmond, so he’s going to dictate the terms.”
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore denied the UK government had capitulated as he said the SNP leader would be unable to bolster support for independence by late 2014.
“I think it’s a good agreement,” he said. “I believe it will now allow us to put up in lights the big issues about the big debate… on what is best for Scotland.
“I believe that, when we look at the economy, at defence, at our place in the world, on all these big issues, people across Scotland will continue to support Scotland being in the United Kingdom.
“Independence is about Scotland leaving the UK, becoming a separate state, taking on all the burdens and risks that go with that and losing the benefits and opportunities that we have as part of the UK.”
Former chancellor Mr Darling said he opposed a one-off extension of the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds and wanted an earlier vote, but welcomed today’s deal.
He said: “The key thing at stake in these negotiations was to get the single question.
“I would have preferred to have had this referendum in the autumn of 2013, because a two-year election campaign is going to try the patience of the public, never mind the politicians and those who write about it.
“In relation to 16- and 17-year-olds, I personally don’t think you should change the franchise for one particular referendum or election.”
Mr Darling said he was now anxious to focus on the merits of Scotland remaining in or leaving the UK as he attacked the SNP’s claim that an independent Scotland could retain the pound and influence interest rates.
He said: “It really demonstrates the sooner we cut through some of the bluster and the nonsense that’s been set out by the Nationalists over the last few years, the better it will be.”
OCTOBER 2012 - Section 30 agreed on transferring legal power to hold the referendum from Westminster to Holyrood.
LATE 2012 – Electoral Commission begins its preparations, such as examining the issue of a fair question on whether Scotland leaves the UK.
FEBRUARY 2013 – Section 30 order receives backing of the Privy Council.
SPRING 2013 – Referendum bill comes before the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.
OCTOBER 2013 –The Referendum bill passes its final stage at Holyrood, a certainty, given the SNP’s overall majority.
NOVEMBER 2013 – The Referendum bill receives Royal Assent.
NOVEMBER 2013 – The Scottish Government publishes white paper on independence, which is expected to attempt to answer questions about membership of the European Union and defence of the nation. Unionist parties and the UK government say they will publish regular documents setting out the benefits of the Union.
SUMMER 2014 – Referendum campaign officially begins.
END OF 2014 – Latest date referendum can be held.