Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, leader of the ruling Scottish National Party, announced Tuesday night in a BBC interview that he planned to hold a referendum on full independence in the fall of 2014.
Independence was part of his party’s manifesto when it surged to a landslide victory in Scottish parliamentary elections in May. It was the first time any grouping had won a majority in the devolved Parliament since the assembly was established in Edinburgh in 1999.
Whether Salmond’s unilateral decision on a referendum is constitutional is now a bone of contention in Britain’s Parliament, where Salmond also sits as a lawmaker.
British government Scottish Minister Michael Moore told parliament Wednesday: "As things currently stand, the Scottish government does not have the legal power to hold a referendum.... We need to provide that power by working with them."
In an attempt to deflect an outright hostile confrontation over national and constitutional rights in the country's Supreme Court, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he too was keen to start a debate to devolve the necessary legal powers to Scotland to start the referendum process.
"I passionately believe we are stronger together rather than breaking apart," he said, "but we have to respect the fact that Scotland voted for a separatist party at Scottish parliamentary elections."
Salmond denied that the British government had the right to lay down any conditions for a Scottish independence vote, calling Cameron’s attempts to do so "Thatcheresque," referring to the authoritarian style of 1980s British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
"This is the biggest decision Scotland has made for 300 years.... This is Scotland’s referendum, and the people who will judge the future of this country will be the Scottish people," Salmond told the BBC.
It's unclear how a referendum on secession, a longtime dream of nationalists such as actor Sean Connery, would fare at the polls. Although plenty of Scots favor unyoking themselves from England and Wales in theory, breaking up the union that has existed officially since 1707 would be very complicated.
Further debates are already underway on the future of Scotland’s economic, defense and welfare issues. The country is home to North Sea oil interests and Faslane, Britain’s only nuclear defense deterrent base, with its four Trident submarines. An SNP–ruled independent Scotland would be expected to banish the Tridents.
-- Janet Stobart
Photo: A shop displays kilts and Scottish memorabilia Tuesday near the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond, has indicated that he plans to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images