British Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond announced an agreement Monday on a referendum that could see the biggest political shakeup in the British Isles since Ireland threw off British rule in the previous century.
Though the exact wording on the ballot is to be decided, the people of Scotland will essentially be given the option to say yes or no to remaining part of the United Kingdom. A vote in favor of secession would dissolve the marriage of Scotland to England and Wales that has been on the books since 1707.
Signing the agreement in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, Cameron said a referendum would pave the way "so that the biggest question of all can be settled: a separate Scotland or a United Kingdom? I will be making a very positive argument for our United Kingdom. It is now up to the people of Scotland to make that historic decision. The very future of Scotland depends on their verdict."
The deal between Cameron and Salmond entailed compromises from both sides.
Salmond had pushed for a ballot that offered both independence and a more moderate alternative granting fiscal autonomy for Scotland without a complete breakaway, which would appeal to voters uncertain of taking the ultimate leap. Success for either option would allow the Scottish government to expand its powers.
But Cameron refused to allow a multiple-choice ballot, preferring a simple "in or out" referendum. His advisors gave in, however, to Salmond's insistence that 16- and 17-year-olds be allowed to vote in the plebiscite, which pro-independence Scots think will boost their chances.
Up to now, virtually no polls have found a majority of Scotland's 5.2 million people in favor of full independence. But no one underestimates Salmond's campaigning skills or his passion.
"If Scotland becomes independent, then you’ll have an example of a country becoming independent in a totally civilized, democratic, polite manner," he said in an interview with The Times last month. “That is a tremendous thing.”
Campaigning will now begin in earnest, with the vote projected for the fall of 2014, which would coincide with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, a celebrated victory by Scottish fighters over English forces near the historic city of Stirling.
-- Henry Chu
Photo: Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, left, shakes hands with British Prime Minister David Cameron at the Wimbledon tennis tournament in July. Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press