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.