EDINBURGH, Scotland — It’s not a meeting David Cameron is likely to enjoy.
The British prime minister is due to visit the leader of Scotland’s separatist administration on Monday to agree the terms of a referendum that could break up the United Kingdom — the country Cameron leads.
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, right, shakes hands with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond ahead of the men’s final match at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, England on Sunday, July 8, 2012. (AP P/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Cameron does not want to be the leader who presides over the demise of the 300-year-old political union between England and its northern neighbour. But, practically, there is little he can do to stop politicians in semiautonomous Scotland asking voters whether they want to break free.
With Scotland, like much of Europe, facing recession and economic uncertainty, the answer is hard to predict.
“I can’t find a job and my prospects are slim,” said Sally Murray, an unemployed office worker in Edinburgh. “I’ve got nothing to lose. Perhaps my prospects would improve by going independent.”
Officials from London and Edinburgh have been meeting for weeks to hammer out details of a vote. Sticking points included the date and the wording of the question.
On Friday the two sides said they had reached a deal, which is expected to be approved Monday by Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.
It is likely to call for a referendum in October 2014, as Salmond’s nationalists had desired. Cameron and other pro-union politicians had pressed for the vote to be held earlier, because opinion polls show that only between a quarter and a third of Scots favor splitting the nation.
The referendum will involve a single yes-no question on leaving the United Kingdom, as Cameron’s government wished. Salmond’s Scottish Nationalist Party favored including a third option of greater autonomy short of full independence.
The deal is likely to give 16- and 17-year-olds votes, another proposal backed by the Scottish nationalists. The voting age in other British elections is 18.
Scotland and England have a complex relationship. They fought one another for centuries, and Scottish children are still raised on tales of Robert the Bruce and William “Braveheart” Wallace. The latter’s story was told, with Hollywood artistic license, in the Mel Gibson film “Braveheart.” Many Scots are also brought up in the Unionist tradition and have a strong affinity with England and the monarchy.
The two countries united in 1707 to form Great Britain, with a common monarch, currency and London-based government. (Wales is also part of Great Britain which, along with Northern Ireland, constitutes the state known as the United Kingdom).
Scotland gained significant autonomy after voting in 1997 to set up a Scottish Parliament with substantial powers. But Salmond’s party, which has a majority in the Edinburgh legislature, wants to go further and make the nation of 5 million people an independent country within the European Union.
Salmond has successfully marketed a kind of aspirational nationalism — a sort of Scottish Scandinavia — that accentuates building a cozy social safety net and welcomes Scots of all races and creeds.
He insists independence will bring greater prosperity, allowing Scotland to better exploit its oil, gas and other energy resources.
But the European economic crisis has forced him to alter some of his pitch. He once said an independent Scotland would join the euro single currency. Now he says it would retain the pound, though it’s unclear whether London would agree to that.
There are many more thorny questions raised by the prospect of separation, including the future of Scotland’s nuclear submarine base and British Army regiments, and its European Union membership.
As in many divorces, there is also likely to be a battle over assets and liabilities.
The SNP says independent Scotland would be entitled to 90 percent of revenue from North Sea oil and gas — which stood at 6.5 billion pounds ($10.4 billion) in 2009-2010 — but only liable for 8 percent of 1 trillion pound ($1.67 trillion) national debt, based on Scotland’s share of the U.K. population. The British government disputes that breakdown.
Pro-union politicians also claim Scotland lacks the economic clout to go it alone, pointing out that its two biggest financial institutions, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of Scotland, are now largely owned by British taxpayers after nearing collapse during the 2008 global banking crisis.
Then there are factors beyond the U.K.’s borders. Europe’s crisis is boosting breakaway movements across the continent, from Belgium’s Dutch-speaking Flanders to the Spanish region of Catalonia, whose regional parliament has voted to hold a referendum on self-determination.
“I don’t want independence and I am concerned that people will think if Catalonia can do it, so can we,” said David Mackenzie, an insurance salesman from Edinburgh.
For now, the “Yes” campaign — a loose coalition that includes Greens and Salmond’s SNP — has the momentum. Its slick campaign effectively uses social media such as Facebook and Twitter to mobilize support.
The pro-union “Better Together” campaign, which includes both Cameron’s Conservative Party and its arch-rival Labour, has had a lackluster start.
Political commentator and former Labour spin doctor Simon Pia said the pro-union side needed to raise its game.
“The SNP has stolen a march with its campaign which is very savvy and concentrates on positive reasons to split,” he said.
He said pro-union forces “need to offer a vision of positive and emotional alternative to independence and not just focus on the negatives of the impact of separation.”