Cameron and Salmond
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David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, signed a referendum deal on Monday that will give Scots a vote on independence that could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom, more than 300 years after Scotland was first united with England.

The referendum will be closely watched in Europe, where the eurozone debt crisis has breathed new life into secessionist movements across the continent.

Mr Cameron and Alex Salmond, first minister in the Scottish parliament, met in Edinburgh to sign an accord for a vote to be held in the autumn of 2014, with both leaders promising to respect the result. Mr Salmond, leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, hailed the referendum as “the most important political decision in 300 years” of Scottish history, since the mutually agreed union with England in 1707.

It will be held in a year marking the 700th anniversary of a famous Scottish victory over England at the Battle of Bannockburn, but Mr Salmond will need more than political symbolism to secure victory.

Opinion polls suggest public opposition to independence in Scotland is running at about 2:1. Asked whether the referendum deal was a political death warrant, Mr Salmond said: “I believe we will win.”

Mr Salmond has a formidable record as a political campaigner and routed his opponents when his party won Scottish parliamentary elections in 2011. Scotland already has devolved control over issues including schools, health and transport.

Mr Salmond believes that Scotland will be more prosperous and socially inclusive if it breaks its ties with London, although Mr Salmond’s vision of independence has its limits. He confirmed his intention to seek a currency union with the rest of the UK, and said he would also seek to retain some British institutions including the National Health Service and the BBC.

The issue has fascinated the world’s media. Spanish news organisations in Edinburgh were keen to analyse the implications of a Scottish breakaway on the independence aspirations of regions such as Catalonia.

Jay Cao, London bureau chief of Hong Kong Phoenix Satellite Television, said viewers in China were confused about why Europe seemed increasingly fractious at a time when an economic crisis demanded unity.

If Scotland seceded from the union, it would mark the biggest shake-up in the United Kingdom since the Republic of Ireland broke away in the 1920s.

Mr Cameron and his Conservative party will fight hard to preserve the union. Britain’s two other big parties – Labour and the Liberal Democrats – also oppose Scottish independence.

The British premier visited the Rosyth shipyard near Edinburgh yesterday to hail the UK’s armed forces and to rekindle memories of the London Olympics, in which all parts of the UK gathered behind “Team GB”.

A vote for independence would raise legal questions about whether Scotland would automatically qualify for EU membership There would also be questions about Scotland’s participation in Nato. The Scottish National Party has traditionally wanted to quit the alliance, although Mr Salmond wants to reverse that position.

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