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Last updated: October 15, 2012 9:37 am
David Cameron and Alex Salmond will on Monday formally launch a two-year debate on the future of the UK as the two leaders agree the details of a referendum on whether Scotland should become independent.
The prime minister and Scottish first minister will meet in Edinburgh to finalise the transfer of the legal power to Holyrood to hold a vote, which Mr Salmond wants in 2014 – the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.
The decision to hold a referendum ends protracted technical negotiations, which began soon after the Scottish National party won an unprecedented majority last year, and launch the substantive argument over Scotland’s place in the union.
Mr Cameron said: “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.
Michael Moore, the Scotland secretary, told the BBC on Monday that people would weigh up the country’s place in the world.
“We have much more clout as part of the UK at the top table at the United Nations and Nato, in the European Union, we’ve got much greater security as part of an economy, the fourth-largest defence spender in the world, lots of jobs dependent on that,” he said.
“I think these are the issues that people are going to focus on and that will be much more powerful than an uncertain prospect.”
The prime minister has prevailed in insisting that the referendum should pose only one question – on whether Scotland should become independent – and not include a second “devo-max” option calling for more powers to be transferred to Edinburgh.
Nicola Sturgeon, SNP deputy first minister, denied that the Scottish government had been outmanoeuvred by Westminster during the talks because it had failed to secure the “devo-max” second question.
“We have never said we wanted a second question on the ballot paper,” she said. “In any negotiation there has to be compromise. Both sides have compromised, but overall I’m very satisfied that we have a deal that guarantees a referendum made in Scotland, ’’ she told BBC radio on Monday.
Mr Salmond will consult on the exact wording of the question, before publishing his proposals in a referendum bill early next year. But the fact that he has agreed it will be a straight choice between Scotland remaining in, or leaving the union, marks a victory for the British government, which had feared that he would try and offer a third option as a way of reducing the impact of a defeat for independence.
The Scottish government meanwhile has won its battle to retain the right to extend the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds, whom polls suggest are more likely to vote for independence.
Lord Forsyth, former Conservative Scottish secretary and a fervent opponent of independence, said Mr Cameron had acted like “Pontius Pilate” in ceding so much ground to Mr Salmond.
Ms Sturgeon said a final decision of the people would be “respected by both governments”.
But Mr Moore said the negotiations had produced a referendum that would be “fair, legal and decisive”.
Polls suggest that the SNP has a difficult task on its hands. Surveys conducted since May show that, of those who have made up their minds on how to vote, an average of 63 per cent support remaining part of the UK, with only 37 per cent in favour of independence.
Although there is a large section of undecided voters – 18 per cent according to one recent poll – the momentum has been moving away from independence.
Number 10 is defending itself against claims it has made a big constitutional change by accepting the idea of votes for 16- and 17-year-olds. Officials say there is a difference between a one-off vote on an irreversible constitutional change, for which the franchise should be extended as widely as possible, and regular five-yearly general elections.
Before that happens, however, the SNP must decide how exactly it intends to widen the vote. It could simply allow those already on the register because they are nearly 18, so-called attainers, to vote earlier than currently allowed. But this would leave anyone of that age who has not registered as an attainer off the list, meaning a full redrawing of the electoral list would be a fairer, if more expensive, strategy.
John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde university, said: “This has been an open question for the last 80 years – another two years are not likely to make a big difference. Giving 16- and 17-year-olds the vote might make a marginal difference in an already tight race, but we are a long way from that.”
The SNP is targeting those people who support Scotland receiving more powers but are unconvinced of the case for full independence. With this in mind, Mr Salmond has tried to persuade voters that his vision of an independent Scotland is not much different to the status quo. He insists that the country will be able to remain part of the EU, for example, and will keep sterling as its currency and the queen as head of state.
SNP strategists say the policy is working. One said: “One interesting development is the extent to which people who support “devo-max” [fiscal autonomy without independence] may be inclined to vote for independence on the basis that it delivers everything devo max delivers.”
Pro-unionists meanwhile are pleased to have moved beyond the technical debate about the make-up of the referendum and on to the substantial policy questions that will dominate the next two years.
Alistair Darling, who is leading the campaign in favour of the union, said: “This is the end of the phoney war – but it isn’t going to be like a general election from now on. We will see skirmishes and battles from time to time.”
The first of these skirmishes will begin in the next few months as Westminster begins to release the results of a cross-Whitehall probe into the tangible benefits of the union in various different policy areas. Officials hope that on certain questions, they will be able to set a monetary value on how much the UK is worth to Scottish voters.
Pro-unionists also believe that on key questions, such as membership of international bodies and monetary policy, Mr Salmond is surprisingly unclear about the position of an independent Scotland.
Mr Darling said: “The SNP has had 80 years to think about these issues, and yet has changed its position on the currency three times since the beginning of the year. If they want to break up a 300-year-old union, we’re entitled to ask some questions about it.”
ECONOMY One of the toughest arguments for the pro-independence case to prove is that an independent Scotland would have a sufficiently secure economy. Alex Salmond argues that North Sea oil revenues would help maintain relatively high levels of government spending, but there is evidence that oil stocks there are falling. The SNP has stopped arguing for Scotland to join the euro, saying it could keep the pound and the Bank of England but Westminster is likely to oppose the idea of having its currency affected by a government over which it has no fiscal control.
DEFENCE The SNP believes defence cuts give it a perfect opportunity to argue that a sovereign Scottish government would be better placed to defend the nation’s interests. It says Scotland would retain Scottish regiments and navy and RAF assets, to be split up depending on the size of each country’s economy – for example, taking two of the navy’s 12 frigates. Liam Fox, the former defence secretary and Tory MP, has argued that the SNP’s sums “do not add up” and threaten to undermine the collective power and expertise of the British armed forces.
ENERGY Mr Salmond wants to keep the amount of North Sea oil and gas that lies on its continental shore, about 90 per cent of the UK’s total – although he disagrees that such a split should apply to RBS debt, for example. Some oil companies are happy with this, saying privately the tax regime under a Scottish government could not be any more unstable than that under Westminster, which has made two big changes to tax rules in two years. But renewables providers are more nervous, fearful that the Scottish government might not be able to afford subsidies as generous as current ones.
FOREIGN AFFAIRS The first big test of the SNP’s foreign policy comes this weekend, when the party votes on whether or not to turn its back on its long-held pledge to leave Nato. Mr Salmond has vowed to ban nuclear weapons, which some experts argue is incompatible with Nato membership. Another question is Scotland’s membership of the EU. Mr Salmond argues Scotland would automatically become a part of the union, but the UK government says it would be required to join as an applicant country, which under current rules would also involve taking on the euro.
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