David Cameron’s government will give the Scottish Parliament eighteen months to hold a referendum on independence.
A spokesman for the British prime minister said on Monday that uncertainty about the future of the union between England and Scotland “can have a detrimental impact on the economy.”
Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners and the Labour opposition have both criticized him for “seeking to interfere” in Scotland’s independence struggle by imposing conditions on a referendum.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg opposes a fixed, eighteen-month deadline. Labour is dismayed that the government failed to brief its leader, Ed Miliband, despite it being the largest unionist party in Scotland.
The Conservatives are third in Edinburgh. The Scottish National Party has an absolute majority in the regional legislature.
Under the 1998 Scotland Act, the parliament in Westminster “reserved” the power to decide the constitutional future of Scotland. The government plans to temporarily delegate that authority to Edinburgh. Even if it doesn’t set an eighteen-month deadline, ministers will make clear that they would like the poll to happen by 2013 and expect a simple “yes” or “no” answer.
A referendum will not be legally binding, but it is supported by more than 70 percent of the Scottish people, including voters who oppose independence. According to recent opinion polls, around 40 percent of Scots want to break away.
Opponents, who seem to represent the majority of Scots, argue that the region is economically better off in the United Kingdom and has more international influence now.
After the Greater London area and Southeast England, Scotland has the highest GDP capita in the United Kingdom.
Its relatively high levels of public spending may be difficult to sustain without subsidies from London in the long term. Scottish nationalists argue that North Sea oil revenue would make up for the shortfall — and it could — but eventually, once oil incomes decline, spending must be curtailed or taxes raised in order to finance the Scottish welfare state.