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British, Scottish leaders sign deal on secession vote

EDINBURGH -- Britain's prime minister and Scotland's first minister signed an agreement on Monday to hold a referendum in 2014 on Scottish independence that could lead to the United Kingdom breaking up after 300 years.

Prime Minister David Cameron and pro-independence First Minister Alex Salmond inked the agreement and shook hands after a meeting at the Scottish government building St. Andrews House in Edinburgh.

Cameron strongly opposes a Scottish breakaway and the signing of the terms for the vote fires the starting gun on two years of campaigning which puts the leaders firmly in opposing camps.

After months of negotiations, the deal clears the way for Scotland's administration to hold the referendum in the final quarter of 2014, offering Scots a straight yes-no question on leaving the United Kingdom.

“This is an important day for our United Kingdom, but you can't hold a country in the United Kingdom against the will of its people,” Cameron said.

“Scotland voted for a party that wanted to hold a referendum. I believe in showing respect. This is the right outcome for Scotland and for the United Kingdom to give the people the choice.

“But I passionately hope and believe that they will vote to keep the United Kingdom together. We are better off together, we are stronger together, we are safer together.”

Salmond said before the signing that the agreement “will see Scotland take an important step toward independence, and the means to create a fairer and more prosperous Scotland.

“I look forward to working positively for a yes vote in 2014.”

Cameron's Conservatives will be joined by their Liberal Democrat coalition partners in the British parliament and the opposition Labour party in urging voters to keep Britain together.The marathon campaign will pit them against Salmond's Scottish National Party (SNP), the majority party in the devolved Edinburgh parliament.

The terms have been signed as support among Scots for independence appears to be slipping, with a survey by pollsters TNS-BMRB released last week showing 28 percent in favour and 53 percent opposed. The SNP had pressed for the 2014 date, giving them time to try to win over voters and coinciding with the anniversary of the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn — a famous Scots victory over the English.

One Question on Ballot Paper

The vote is expected to break new ground by including 16 and 17-year-olds, a move favored by Salmond's side, but in a concession to the British government the ballot paper will not offer a third option of increased devolution.

The wording of the question for the referendum must be submitted to Britain's Electoral Commission for approval, but Scotland has held a consultation using the question “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”

Salmond has said he wants to retain the sterling currency and the British monarch as head of state.

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Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, right, and Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, sign a referendum agreement during a meeting at St. Andrews House in Edinburgh, Monday, Oct. 15.

(AP)

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