Scots to vote on whether to stay in UK in 2014


SCOTS WILL be asked a single question in 2014 on whether they want to quit the UK and become independent, British prime minister David Cameron and Scottish first minister Alex Salmond will announce today.

The declaration in Edinburgh will come following months of bitter dispute about the questions to be put to voters; the timeframe within which a referendum should be held; and if the House of Commons had the ultimate authority over whether a referendum could be held.

Despite months of declaring otherwise, Mr Salmond, who leads the Scottish National Party (SNP), has accepted that the Scottish parliament does not have the authority to call a poll and requires so-called section 30 powers to be ceded by London.

And having spent months trying to encourage others to press for the addition of a question on offering more powers to Edinburgh, Mr Salmond has accepted a straightforward in-or-out question on whether Scotland should remain part of the UK.

However, the referendum’s timing – October 2014 – is of Mr Salmond’s choosing. It will follow months of Scottish celebration over the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup and the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, all of which the SNP hopes will fuel nationalist sentiment.

Mr Cameron’s decision last week to mount a £50 million (€62 million) commemoration of the first World War in 2014, meanwhile, is partly motivated by the desire to emphasise the links in war and peace between the union’s nations.

For now, the main question centres on how those who want greater Scottish self-government but who do not want to quit the UK will vote. The latest opinion polls suggest just 28 per cent would vote in favour of independence if a vote was held now.

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote despite initial objections by London, though leading academic Prof John Curtice has discounted the SNP’s belief that this group is significantly more pro-independent than the rest of the population.

With the two-year timetable, Mr Salmond hopes that he will have time to persuade voters to vote for independence and that budget cuts by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition will make London’s influence more unwelcome in Scotland.

Budget cuts are highly topical in Scotland following a recent warning by Johann Lamont of Scottish Labour that universal social benefits could no longer be afforded, and a claim by Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson that just one in eight Scots paid their way.

Seizing upon such remarks, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon said: “I think the game has changed considerably in the last couple of weeks – we now know that there is a Tory-Labour consensus to roll back the progress of devolution.

“Whichever one of these parties is in government in Westminster, we know that they want to take away people’s bus pass, they want to take away free personal care, free prescriptions, and things that are the big achievements of the Scottish parliament.”

The campaign to come is expected to be brutal given the passion on both sides – particularly on the part of the SNP, which has campaigned for such a vote for 80 years.

Former Labour chancellor of the exchequer Alistair Darling, who is leading the pro-union campaign, said the SNP’s “bluster and nonsense” about the merits of independence could be cut through.

The SNP, he said, has said that Scotland will continue to use the pound, which means an independent Scottish parliament would have to agree its tax and spending decisions with London because it would be still part of a fiscal union.

Mr Salmond’s decision to agree on the terms of the referendum may have been partly influenced by the fact that the SNP’s party conference takes place in Perth later this week, when he will urge delegates to abandon their decades-old opposition to Nato membership.