Should Scotland be an independent country or not?
In negotiations concluded on Oct. 15, Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain secured the single in-or-out question he wanted. But the choice facing Scottish voters in 2014, and the campaigns to influence them, will not be nearly as simple as the words on the ballot suggest.
John Curtice, an elections analyst at Strathclyde University, says Scots divide into three roughly equally sized camps. The first wants independence, and the second prefers the status quo. A final group, accounting for about 30 per cent of those polled, would like to stay in the union but also want more powers for Scotland. In effect, they are the swing voters. With two years to go until the referendum, the campaigns are already converging on them.
The separatist Scottish National Party will try to woo them by making independence seem trivial. The party has already underlined its enthusiasm for the queen, the BBC, the pound, the Bank of England's interest rates and British opt-outs from irksome European Union rules. Its leader, Alex Salmond, talks of a "social union" between England and a newly independent Scotland.
He will have a hard time convincing Scots he can deliver these things, though. Independent Scottish participation in sterling, EU opt-outs and the BBC are not, and will never be, his to give.
Unionists, meanwhile, are trying to convince Scots that voting "no" would result in a hefty dose of new powers. On signing the referendum agreement, Cameron called on Scots in favour of more devolution to vote to stay in the United Kingdom. Labour has launched a commission to draw up a new devolution package, which will report next year and advance a final set of proposals in 2014.
The Liberal Democrats already have proposed far-reaching changes, including a new federal structure for the entire union. Under their plan, Scotland would raise about two-thirds of the money it spends.
Jeremy Purvis, of the pressure group Devo Plus, hopes the unionist parties' proposals will coalesce in the run-up to the referendum. He'd like to see them present voters with a clear set of commitments, to be featured in all three main parties' manifestos for the 2015 election, showing that a vote against separation is not a vote for the status quo.
If that happens, much of the wind will be taken out of Salmond's sails. He may be a romantic Caledonian nationalist, but many SNP voters -- and even some party members -- would be perfectly satisfied with the advanced devolution proposed by the unionist parties. Nationalist hopes that a busy Scottish cultural calendar in 2014 and participation by voters as young as 16 will significantly boost the separatist turnout seem optimistic at best.
The referendum is therefore forcing the SNP to make concessions to the union, while pushing unionists toward further devolution. The gap between the visions set forth by the two sides, while roomy, is shrinking. It now concerns questions of identity -- citizenship, flags, titles, membership in international organizations -- more than retail politics.
Can Scotland be sufficiently independent within the United Kingdom? Unless Salmond can persuade the average voter that it cannot, the union is safe.