The debate on Scotland’s constitutional future has officially begun after the UK and Scottish governments agreed a framework for the referendum on independence.
Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister Alex Salmond met in Edinburgh to sign off on the deal, which paves the way for the Scottish Parliament to hold a plebiscite on whether Scotland should leave the Union.
The details of the agreement are still emerging but it is understood that it will provide for a single-question referendum, the UK Government’s favoured approached, and allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote for the first time in the UK, a move that has been pushed by the SNP.
Mr Cameron, who visited with workers at Rosyth dockyard prior to his meeting with the First Minister, said: “This marks the beginning of an important chapter in Scotland’s story and allows the real debate to begin. It paves 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. It is that important. This agreement delivers the people’s referendum.”
Speaking after signing the document, Mr Salmond said: “The Edinburgh Agreement, signed by the Scottish and UK governments today, marks a significant step in Scotland’s Home Rule journey. Importantly, it will ensure that the biggest decision the people of our country will make for many generations is made here in Scotland for the benefit of all of those that live and work here. This will be a referendum designed and delivered by the Scottish Parliament. Today’s accord marks agreement on the process and respect for the outcome, from both sides. In my view, it paves the way for a new partnership in these islands.
“The Scottish Government has an ambitious vision for Scotland: a prosperous and successful European country, reflecting Scottish values of fairness and opportunity, promoting equality and social cohesion. A Scotland with a new place in the world - as an independent nation.
“Today’s historic signing of the Edinburgh Agreement marks the start of the campaign to fulfil that ambition. It will be a campaign during which we will present our positive, ambitious vision for a flourishing, fairer, progressive, independent Scotland - a vision I am confident will win the argument and deliver a Yes vote in Autumn 2014."
The pact has been struck to quash concerns over the legality of a referendum conducted by Holyrood without the permission of Westminster. The Scotland Act (1998), which created the Scottish Parliament, reserves constitutional matters to the UK Parliament.
The Prime Minister has agreed to use a Section 30 order to transfer temporarily the power to hold a referendum from London to Edinburgh. This refers to Section 30(2) of the Scotland Act which allows UK ministers to make changes to Schedule Five of the Act – the section of the law that enumerates the powers of the two parliaments.
The agreement between the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government states that the governments have "agreed to work together to ensure that a referendum on Scottish independence can take place".
It states: "The governments have agreed that the referendum should have a clear legal base; be legislated for by the Scottish Parliament; be conducted so as to command the confidence of parliaments, government and people; and deliver a fair test and decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect."
It notes that the governments have agreed to promote an Order in Council under Section 30 of the Scotland Act to allow a single question referendum on Scottish independence to be held before the end of 2014. The Order "will put beyond doubt that the Scottish Parliament can legislate for the referendum".
The agreement, signed by the Prime Minister, First Minster, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon goes on: "It will then be for the Scottish Government to promote legislation in the Scottish Parliament for a referendum on independence. The governments are agreed that the referendum should meet the highest standards of fairness, transparency and propriety, informed by consultation and independent expert advice.
"The referendum legislation will set out the date of the referendum; the franchise; the wording of the question; rules on campaign financing; and other rules for the conduct of the referendum."
Jeremy Purvis, leader of the cross-party Devo Plus group, welcomed the agreement but insisted that a straight Yes/No ballot does not render the option of additional powers as irrelevant. He said: “As all the parties now agree, the time for discussing process is over and the issue now is to address substance.
"This makes the case for Devo Plus even more relevant. Since our launch in February, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have indicated their openness to further powers, so it now appears that the real question in 2014 will be a straight question between independence and a form of Devo Plus.
“For the result of the referendum to be decisive, those that do not support independence can now come together with Devo Plus for a long-term solution that provides a clear choice in the referendum and settles this for a generation. This means making this clear ahead of the vote and obtaining a consensus that is capable of delivery after the referendum.”
Follow it live: Updates throughout the day on the agreement signing
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