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UK signs deal on Scotland independence referendum

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British Prime Minister David Cameron, left shakes hands with Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond in Edinburgh on Monday.

LONDON -- British Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond signed a deal Monday agreeing the date and wording of a referendum that will ask Scottish voters whether they want to remain in the 305-year-old union with England.

The agreement -- which stipulates that Scotland will decide on the matter no later than fall 2014 -- comes after months of delicate negotiations between the British government in London and the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

Under the terms of the agreement, the referendum should “deliver a fair test and a decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect.”

"This marks the beginning of an important chapter in Scotland's story and allows the real debate to begin," Cameron said in comments prepared for delivery and released by his office in advance.

'Biggest opportunity'
Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who was closely involved in the backroom negotiations that led to the referendum agreement, called it “the biggest opportunity the people of Scotland have had for 300 years to determine the kind of nation we all wish to live in.”

The timing of the referendum appears to be a victory for Salmond, whose Scottish National Party (SNP) has campaigned for decades for the right of Scots to determine the country’s destiny for themselves.

With recent opinion polls showing only around 30 percent of Scots supporting independence, Cameron is believed to have favored an earlier vote.

The prime minister has publicly opposed a break-up of the union, arguing that countries are "stronger together".

But Cameron has been under increasing pressure to bring forward legislation after the SNP made significant gains in Scottish Parliament elections in May 2011, taking full control of Scotland's devolved government after gaining power through a coalition in 2007.

A remarkable, and rapid, transformation has shifted Scotland’s political terrain since the first devolved parliament was established in 1999.

The SNP, frequently campaigning on a ticket of an independent Scotland, has seen its fortunes improve at the expense of mainstream parties affiliated to London's Westminster parliament.

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Behind the SNP’s rhetoric is the belief that independence will make Scotland more successful.

The SNP points to successful countries like Sweden and Norway, which function well as smaller states.

In its publicity material, the SNP claims: “We will be able to address the priorities of people in Scotland, from better state pensions to universal free childcare. Scotland could do even more to lead the world in areas like renewable energy and tackling climate change, and play our part in creating a more peaceful and stable world.”

Funding the plan
But these bold aspirations require the financial capacity to deliver them.

London argues that an independent Scotland, which has a huge government sector, would struggle to balance the books. The bulk of Scotland's current funding comes from an annual $48 billion grant from the U.K. government.

The most contentious issue -- one likely to dominate debate in the run-up to the referendum -- is the ownership of an estimated 20 billion barrels of oil and gas reserves that lie beneath the British part of the North Sea.

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Scotland has long laid claim to the tax revenues of the fossil fuels that flow ashore and many analysts believe the pro-independence campaign will need to deliver the money in order to deliver its policies.

For now, the next step will be for the Scottish Parliament to bring legislation to allow the referendum to take place. In that, there will be a world of detail for both sides to chew over, including the wording of the referendum question, the right of younger people to vote and how the campaign will be financed.

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