Alex Salmond is the winner from the Scottish independence referendum deal

The agreement to hold the vote in 2014 is a major victory for the Scottish First Minister.

Commentators were quick to declare David Cameron the winner from the Scottish independence referendum deal, but it's actually Alex Salmond who has gained the most. As a result of the agreement, the Scottish First Minister will be able to hold the referendum in 2014, his long preferred date. The UK government originally insisted that it would only give Scotland the legal authority to stage a binding vote if it was held by September 2013, but it dropped this demand in return for Salmond agreeing to a one-question referendum. While Salmond would have preferred a "devo-max" option to be included on the ballot paper (as a potential consolation prize), the decision to postpone the vote until 2014 (the SNP has until the end of that year) gives him what he needs most: time.

With the Yes campaign trailing by 25-points in the latest poll, Salmond now has more than two years to bring the voters round to his side. By 2014, he hopes that the full force of the coalition's austerity measures, most of which have yet to be implemented, will have persuaded Scotland that the time is right to go it alone. With the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, Salmond always knew that 2012 would be a tough year for the independence cause. But 2014, which will see Scotland celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn and host the Commonwealth games and the Ryder Cup, will provide multiple opportunities for the SNP to stoke nationalist fervour.

While the decision to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote is of little significance (polls suggest that they are as opposed to independence as the rest of the Scottish public), Cameron's willingness to allow Salmond to delay the vote until 2014 is a major concession. After a year which has seen the odds continually lengthen against independence, the SNP finally has some cause for hope.

David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond meet on the steps of St Andrews House before agreeing a deal on a Scottish independence referendum. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £11.2.bn a year by 2030). But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.