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EDINBURGH: Scotland set up a historic independence referendum yesterday after its leader and Britain’s prime minister finalised arrangements for a vote that could lead to the demise of its three-centuries-old union with England.
Scotland’s drive for sovereignty, led by its nationalist leader Alex Salmond, echoes separatist moves by other European regions such as Catalonia and Flanders which feel they could prosper as separate entities inside the European Union.
Signed in the Scottish capital Edinburgh, the referendum agreement allows Scotland to ask its people in a 2014 vote whether their homeland should become an independent country or stay within the United Kingdom.
“It’s a historic day for Scotland,” a visibly excited Salmond said after signing the deal with Prime Minister David Cameron. “Do I think we can win this campaign? Yes, I do.”
One of the most contentious issues at stake is the ownership of an estimated 20 billion barrels of recoverable oil and gas reserves beneath the UK-controlled part of the North Sea.
Britain is also worried about the future of its nuclear submarine fleet based in Scotland as Salmond says there would be no place for nuclear arms on Scotland’s soil after independence. Moving the fleet elsewhere would be costly and time-consuming.
Cameron, who did not address reporters alongside Salmond, opposes Scotland’s push for independence but agrees it is up to its people to determine their future in a vote.
Many Scots themselves are unconvinced. Opinion polls show only between 30 and 40 percent of them are in favour — a range that has changed little as negotiations have intensified.
To convince doubters, Salmond is banking on his skill as an orator to tap into a centuries-old rivalry with England and show that independence would allow his country to pursue a more distinct left-leaning agenda than its southern neighbour.
He has also won a major concession from London to allow Scotland to lower the voting age to 16 from Britain’s countrywide 18 — a coup for Salmond who believes that young people are more likely to vote in favour of independence.
In Edinburgh, a vibrant city festooned with Scotland’s blue-and-white flags, few people shared Salmond’s excitement.
“I consider myself British and I prefer to stay British. I was in the British army fighting on the side of the English and the Welsh and the Northern Irish,” said Murray Poole, 24.
“But some of my friends are up for it (independence), they don’t like England ... They want to become Scottish.”
Back in London, the debate surrounding Scotland’s fate has failed to capture people’s attention at a time when many are concerned with deepening budget cuts and unemployment.
“Couldn’t give a Scooby dooby doo,” said a builder outside London’s wool exchange. Jamie Smith, a young professional, said: “Scotland would be foolish to go it alone. They get more out of it than they put in.”
Speaking to reporters after the signing, Cameron argued Britain would be stronger if it stayed together.