DAVID Cameron and Alex Salmond have signed a historic deal to ensure Scots make a “decisive and respected” call on whether to create a country independent from the rest of the United Kingdom in two years’ time.
Seventeen months after the SNP’s landslide victory in the 2011 Holyrood elections, the First Minister and Prime Minister yesterday put their names to an agreement to ensure Scots make an irrevocable vote on the country’s future in the autumn of 2014.
Both London and Edinburgh are now committed to respecting whichever decision the voters take, even if either side wins by a wafer-thin majority.
The agreement declared the referendum will now deliver a result “that everyone will respect”. It also committed both UK and Scottish governments to “work together constructively in the light of the outcome, whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom”.
Mr Salmond said the deal “paves the way for the most important decision our country of Scotland has made in several hundred years”.
He added: “It is, in that sense, an historic day for Scotland and a major step forward in Scotland’s home rule journey.”
After shaking hands with Mr Cameron on the “Edinburgh Agreement”, the First Minister said the prize of ensuring UK “respect” for the outcome persuaded him to accept Mr Cameron’s red line in the talks – the ruling out of a second question on devo-max appearing on the ballot paper.
Voters face a stark in-out choice and now know that whichever result is announced at the end of polling in October 2014, it will present a final, once-in-a-generation decision on the future direction of the country. Mr Salmond’s aides said the
finality of the deal demonstrated that, should there be a vote in favour of independence, the UK government was now committed to ensuring co-operation with Scotland on issues such as membership of a sterling zone.
However, UK officials dismissed those claims last night, saying nothing had been negotiated on the terms of independence and could not be until after a vote had taken place.
The agreement paves the way for a two-year campaign, with polls consistently showing most Scots want the country to remain within the UK.
The two governments agreed to give the Scottish Parliament the power to legislate on the referendum, with the Westminster parliament expected to begin tabling a law to do so next week.
Under the terms of the deal, Mr Salmond will bring forward a bill early next year which will set out the date, the franchise, the wording and the rules on campaign spending.
He confirmed yesterday that he intended to hold the referendum in autumn 2014. The deal also clears the way for 16- and 17- year-olds to have the vote.
The SNP has agreed to consult the Electoral Commission on the wording and on campaign spending before putting proposals to the Scottish Parliament early next year. The party has already stated its preferred question: “Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?” However, it has been described as “loaded” by some pro-Union figures.
Both Mr Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made it clear yesterday that they would take advice from the Electoral Commission, but insisted it would be for the Scottish Parliament to decide. Opposition parties last night said the SNP should respect the wishes of the independent commission.
After an hour of talks with Mr Cameron, Mr Salmond declared the agreement signed yesterday would “ensure that the biggest decision the people of our country will make for many generations is made here in Scotland”.
He added: “Today’s accord marks agreement on the process and respect for the outcome, from both sides. In my view, it paves the way for a new partnership in these islands.”
Mr Salmond’s advisers said they were “very happy” with the deal, insisting that despite having pushed for a second question on devo-max, the winner-takes-all plan had been their preference all along.
But there was satisfaction among Westminster figures too, who said they had prevented a constitutional row by what they called their “reasonableness strategy”.
Mr Cameron said: “This is the right decision for Scotland, but it’s also right for the United Kingdom that there is going to be one, simple, straightforward question about whether Scotland wants to stay in the United Kingdom or separate itself, and that referendum has to be held before the end of 2014.”
He added: “I always wanted to show respect to the people of Scotland – they voted for a party that wanted to have a referendum, I’ve made that referendum possible and made sure that it is decisive, it is legal and it is fair.”
The end of the agreement declares: “The two governments are committed to continue to work together constructively in the light of the outcome, whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom”.
Mr Salmond said this was “most significant”, showing the two governments would, in the event of a Yes, work in the “delivery of independence”.
• A ComRes poll last night showed 34 per cent of Scots support independence, with 55 per cent opposed.
Milestones along the way to a vote – and issues still to solve
• 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.
• FEBRUARY 2013 Section 30 order receives backing of the Privy Council.
• SPRING 2013 The 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, expected to attempt to answer questions on defence and European Union membership. Unionist parties and the UK government say they will publish regular pro-Union documents.
• SUMMER 2014 Referendum campaign officially begins.
• END OF 2014 Latest date referendum can be held.
What’s left to be resolved:
• The question – Alex Salmond wants voters to be asked “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” But the pro-Union parties have accused the SNP of selecting a biased form of words. The SNP question will be submitted to the Electoral Commission.
Campaign finance – The Scottish Parliament will set the campaign spending limits, although the SNP government will have to consult the commission on any proposals.
• A key dispute could centre around whether the restrictions come into force before the launch of the official campaign.