LONDON — Breaking up is supposed to be hard to do – but Britain's government confirmed Tuesday it would happily offer Scotland the powers it needs to sever centuries-old ties to England.
Prime Minister David Cameron's government said it would sweep away legal hurdles to allow the Scots a vote on whether their country should become independent for the first time since the 18th Century Act of Union, which united Scotland with England to create Great Britain.
But in return, Cameron – who opposes any breakup of the United Kingdom, which also includes Wales and Northern Ireland – is urging Scotland to make its intentions clear "sooner rather than later." He claims investors are becoming increasingly wary of Scottish leader Alex Salmond's plans to delay a vote for several years, damaging Britain's economy.
Salmond, head of Scotland's semiautonomous government, has long championed independence to allow the country greater control over lucrative oil and natural gas reserves in the North Sea.
His separatist Scottish National Party insists that winning autonomy over tax and spending policies – powers the Scottish government doesn't presently have – would help replicate the economic success of neighbors like Norway, which has used its energy riches to fund state pensions.
"This is a huge decision for Scotland. This is potentially the biggest decision we have made as a nation for 300 years," Salmond said Tuesday, on a tour of an oil facility in Dyce, eastern Scotland.
He insisted that Cameron should not take any role in setting out the timetable for the crucial referendum.
"We are not going to be stampeded and dragooned by a Tory prime minister in London," Salmond said.
Since Scotland voted in favor of a domestic legislative body in 1997, its parliament has had autonomy over education, health and justice and can make minor alterations to income tax. For now, London retains primacy on all matters relating to Britain as a whole – including defense, energy and foreign relations.
The other nations of the U.K. also have administrations with some limited powers. Wales voted for a national assembly in 1997, while the Northern Ireland Assembly was created to provide cross-community government in the province under the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
Salmond accuses Cameron of pushing for an early vote in Scotland in the hope of killing off any split in the United Kingdom. Both Cameron and Britain's opposition leader, the Labour Party's Ed Miliband, plan to campaign against Scottish independence.
The timing of the vote could be crucial. Recent opinion polls indicate rising support for independence, after surveys showed backing for the separation hovering at about 30 percent for several decades.
The Scottish Government said autumn 2014 was its preferred date for a vote on the country's constitutional future, with Salmond saying the timeframe is desirable because "this is the biggest decision Scotland has made for 300 years."
"If you are going to do things properly, allow the proper process to take place ... then that is the date we are going to move towards," Salmond said.
There had been speculation the poll would be held in 2014, when nationalist sentiment could be at a high as the city of Glasgow hosts the Commonwealth Games and Scots mark the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, a key military victory over England.
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore said that under current law, Scotland's Parliament could not hold its own legally binding referendum, meaning any attempt to enforce the result would be illegal. He said Britain's government would temporarily grant Scotland's administration the rights to hold a binding poll.
"This government believes passionately in the United Kingdom," Moore told the House of Commons. "For over 300 years our country has brought people together in the most successful multinational state the world has known."
Danny Alexander, Britain's deputy treasury chief and a lawmaker who represents a Scottish district at Westminster, said the decision would help "avoid years of legal wrangling" and speed Scotland's path to a decision.
"I think that jobs, investment and growth in Scotland are much more important than waiting for the anniversary of a medieval battle as the key that determines your timing for a referendum," Alexander said.
Cameron has suggested Scotland's vote should only put forward two choices – independence, or the status quo, dismissing calls for a third option, under which Scotland would have control over all but foreign policy and defense.
Salmond hasn't ruled out including the lesser option, referred to as "independence-lite," but said his own party would campaign in favor of a permanent split.
"What I think the Scottish people deserve is a fair, clear and decisive question," Cameron said.
Salmond's party has said that if it succeeds in winning independence, Scotland would keep Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and – for now at least – retain the British pound as its currency.
David Stringer can be reached at http://bit.ly/b2tTK0