LONDON — Voters in Scotland will head to the polls in September 2014 to decide whether to go it alone as an independent country or remain in Great Britain with England and Wales.
The referendum could lead to the biggest political shake-up in the British Isles since Ireland achieved independence nearly a century ago.
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, unveiled the date of the milestone vote Thursday in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. The vote is the key issue of his Scottish National Party, or SNP, which swept to power in an election two years ago.
“I’m honored to announce that on Thursday, the 18th of September 2014, we will hold Scotland’s referendum, a historic day when the people will decide Scotland’s future,” Salmond said.
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The date requires ratification by the Parliament.
The referendum will ask: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” A victory for the “yes” side would dissolve a sometimes happy, sometimes rocky, political marriage sealed in 1707.
Scotland gained significant autonomy after voting in 1997 to set up the Edinburgh-based Scottish Parliament, which has power over areas including education, health and justice. Britain retains control of defense, energy and foreign relations.
Salmond said “two futures” for Scotland would be on offer. “A ‘no’ vote means a future of governments we didn’t vote for, imposing cuts and policies we don’t support,” he told legislators. “A ‘yes’ vote means a future where we can be certain, 100 percent certain, that the people of Scotland will get the government they vote for.”
He has his work cut out for him. Virtually no credible poll has shown a majority of Scots favor independence — greater autonomy, perhaps, but not outright secession from Britain.
Salmond was needled by Johann Lamont, leader of the Scottish Labor Party, who asked why, if independence was so important, his party did not push for an earlier date.
“The truth is, Alex Salmond knows if he held the referendum now, he wouldn’t just lose it. He would be routed,” said Lamont, who added that Scotland would remain “on pause” until the vote, with important issues going unaddressed in the interim.
The date of the referendum has been the subject of a guessing game since Salmond and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed in October that the vote should go ahead. Cameron and his Conservative Party have vowed to fight to keep Scotland in union with England and Wales, as has Britain’s opposition Labor Party.
Cameron had demanded an earlier vote but relented on 2014 as the year, which marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, an iconic event in Scotland’s wars of independence against the English.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.