Road to Referendum: Poll inevitable after SNP win

First Minister Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announcing the date of the referendum. Picture: Jane Barlow
First Minister Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announcing the date of the referendum. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE die was cast for holding an independence referendum when the SNP won its spectacular victory in the 2011 Holyrood election.

After four years as a minority government, Alex Salmond led his party back into power with an unprecedented overall majority of seats.

The voting system for the Scottish Parliament was not supposed to hand any one party control – but the Nationalists emerged from the election with 69 out of 129 MSPs.

The result was as much of a surprise to senior Nationalists as it was to everyone else.

They had promised a referendum in their 2007 manifesto – indeed that was key to their narrow victory at that time because it meant people opposed to independence could vote SNP in the knowledge there would be another vote before any move to go it alone.

And although the SNP put forward a bill for a referendum, it knew its status as a minority administration meant the opposition parties could always combine to block it.

But now, with an overall majority, there was nothing standing between the Nationalists and the chance to put their vision direct to the voters.

That did not mean there would be no wrangling over the details, of course. Questions were raised about whether the parliament had the power to hold a referendum and there was the matter of who would decide the question, who would be able to vote and the role of the Electoral Commission.

The SNP was keen to give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. And some argued the franchise should be extended to Scots living outside Scotland, including the estimated 800,000 living in the other parts of the UK. But the Scottish Government said such a move would increase the complexity of the referendum and risked being challenged on human rights grounds if people who did not live here were given a say.

Negotiations took place between the Scottish and UK governments, culminating in the Edinburgh Agreement signed by Alex Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron at St Andrew’s House on ­October 15, 2012.

It laid down that the UK government would give Holyrood the legal authority to call the referendum, just to put its legal ­status beyond doubt.

Mr Salmond had let it be known during the talks that he was open to the idea of a second question on the ballot paper, offering more powers for the parliament short of independence, but this was vetoed by Westminster.

The Scottish Government, however, was left to set the date and decide who should vote – later legislating to include 16 and 17-year-olds.

Then there was the small matter of the wording of the question to be asked. The SNP’s proposal “Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country?” was judged to be a leading question biased towards a Yes answer. But an easy solution was found by dropping the “Do you agree” and making it simply: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

But the two sides did not wait for such details to be sorted out before launching their campaigns.

Yes Scotland held its launch at Cineworld in Fountainbridge May 2012. Alex ­Salmond and Green MSP Patrick Harvie were joined by celebrities including Hollywood star Brian Cox and X-Men actor Alan Cumming.

And actor Martin Compston read a statement from 007 Sir Sean Connery, but the event was generally felt to be less polished than expected from an SNP-led outfit.

The pro-UK campaign Better Together launched the ­following month at Edinburgh Napier University’s Craiglockhart campus. Alistair Darling was the key speaker and there was a video of ordinary people saying why they wanted to stay in the UK.

Mr Salmond had announced early on that the referendum would be held in “the second half of 2014”.

There was speculation the vote could be timed for St Andrew’s Day or the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, but the real date was kept a closely guarded secret right up to the moment on March 21 last year when Mr Salmond revealed to ­parliament that the big day would be September 18, 2014.

The Scottish Government’s white paper on independence, a heavy 670-page document with a chunky question and answer session, was launched in Glasgow on November 26, 2013.

Despite frequent complaints about a lack of information there has since been a whole series of analysis papers from both sides on a wide range of issues from North Sea oil to EU membership.

Now there is less than a week to go before Scotland’s historic choice.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com