Scotland's leader has presented his proposal for a ballot on independence — and his ideas include letting 16- and 17-year-olds cast ballots in a vote that could see the breakup of Britain within four years.
First Minister Alex Salmond announced the Scottish government's preferred options for the vote on whether to sever ties from Britain, which it plans to hold in the fall of 2014. A “yes” vote would lead to independence taking effect with a May 2016 election for the Scottish Parliament.
Scotland and England united in 1707 to form Great Britain. Scotland gained significant autonomy after voting in 1997 to set up the Edinburgh-based Scottish Parliament, but some Scots want to go further and make the nation of 5 million people an independent country within the European Union.
Salmond told Scottish lawmakers in the Edinburgh assembly Wednesday that the ballot would ask “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”
But he said it could also include a third option, backing increased autonomy short of full independence.
And he said the voting age should be lowered from the current 18.
“If a 16-year-old in Scotland can register to join the army, get married and pay taxes, surely he or she should be able to have a say in this country's constitutional future?” Salmond said.
Scottish 16-year-olds can join the army — though they cannot be sent into combat until they are 18 — work full-time and marry without parental consent. The official Scottish drinking age outside the home is 18, but even that has some exceptions for 16- and 17-year-olds.
Salmond, who leads the separatist Scottish National Party, said independence would bring “a new, more modern relationship between the nations of these islands — a partnership of equals.”
The exact wording is subject to input from Scottish voters and negotiations with the British government in London, which insists it has the final authority to authorize a binding referendum.
British Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-led government has offered the Scottish administration the power to hold a vote on independence, but wants a say in the timing and could insist that the Electoral Commission, which will run the referendum, be allowed to set the question.
Salmond's proposed wording is likely to be seen by opponents as slanted in favor of independence.
Opponents of independence want to hold the vote as soon as possible, because polls suggest only about a third of Scots favor splitting from England.
Cameron has said the ballot should pose a straight yes-no question, and not include a third option, which has been dubbed maximum devolution. Salmond disagrees.
“If there is an alternative of maximum devolution which would command wide support in Scotland, then it is only fair and democratic that option should be among the choices open to the people of Scotland,” Salmond said.
Cameron stressed Wednesday that everyone in Britain, not just Scots, should have a say in any changes to Scotland's status.
“The point that everyone needs to understand is that options for further devolution, options for changes across the United Kingdom, are matters all of the United Kingdom should rightly discuss,” he said.
Michael Moore, Cameron's minister responsible for Scotland, was due to hold talks with Salmond on Friday but the meeting was postponed because Moore has chicken pox.
Salmond said an independent Scotland would keep Queen Elizabeth II as head of state but would not send troops to “illegal wars like Iraq, and we won't have nuclear weapons based on Scottish soil.” Scotland is currently home to Britain's fleet of nuclear-armed submarines.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, whose party opposes independence, accused Salmon of belittling Scots who wished to remain in Britain.
“Why does he assert as fact that we all wish to be independent of each other when we all know, as families and communities, we want to come together in partnership and cooperation?” she said.
Scottish Government referendum consultation paper: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Consultations/Current