The Scottish Independence Referendum

(Disponible en français: Le référendum sur l’indépendance de l’Écosse)

More than 4 million people in Scotland – including teenagers aged 16 and 17 – are eligible to head to the polls on 18 September for a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to decide whether Scotland will remain part of the United Kingdom (U.K.).

They will vote “yes” or “no” to a single referendum question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

A simple majority is all that is needed to decide the question; the referendum is not subject to any minimum turnout requirement or approval threshold. The Scottish Government says that this is in accordance with the practice that is “well established in the U.K. and across Western Europe.”

To vote in the referendum, a participant must live in Scotland, be aged 16 or over and be a British citizen, a European Union citizen or a qualifying Commonwealth citizen.

Armed services personnel posted outside Scotland, their spouses or partners and any children aged 16 or 17 may also vote.

The referendum process was negotiated by the Scottish and U.K. governments. On 15 October 2012, both governments signed the Edinburgh Agreement, setting out the principles and general framework under which the referendum is to be held.

Scottish governance since the Middle Ages

Throughout Scotland’s long history, governance has been a recurring issue.

Beginning in the 12th century, a single king consolidated power over most of the country.

In 1603, the Crowns of Scotland and England united when King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English Throne as James I. The union was solidified in 1707, when the parliaments of Scotland and England became a single parliament, located at Westminster in London.

Despite the union, the relationship between Scotland and England has experienced periodic challenges, including the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 and the Scottish push for political reform in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The First World War and subsequent economic depression had a marked effect on Scotland. The pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) was formed in 1934, but had limited impact at first. Industrial decline in the 1950s coincided with calls for greater autonomy.

During the 1970s, the SNP gained in popularity, particularly after the discovery of the large North Sea oil fields off the Scottish coast.

In 1979, the British government held a referendum on establishing a Scottish assembly, but the change failed to receive the necessary approval. After Scottish voters approved the idea – known as devolution – in another referendum in 1997, the Scottish Parliament was established.

The Parliament is responsible for such matters as health and social services, education, economic development, the legal system, agriculture, forestry and fishing.

The road to the referendum: Recent events

In 2011, the SNP formed the first majority Scottish Government since devolution. It promised to hold a referendum on independence.

Following the publication of discussion and policy papers, in early 2012 the Government held a referendum consultation on such issues as the wording of the referendum question, the franchise and spending limits for campaign organizations.

The October 2012 Edinburgh Agreement specifies that the referendum should:

  • have a clear legal base;
  • be legislated for by the Scottish Parliament;
  • be conducted so as to command the confidence of parliaments, governments and people; and
  • deliver a fair test and a decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect.

Under the Agreement, the principles of the U.K.’s framework for referendums apply to the Scottish referendum, including oversight by the U.K. Electoral Commission. It was also agreed that the Scottish Parliament would approve the referendum franchise.

In January 2013, the Scottish Government accepted the U.K. Electoral Commission’s recommendation on the wording of the referendum question.

In August 2013, the Scottish Parliament passed a bill extending the referendum franchise to those aged 16 and 17. Three months later, the Parliament passed the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013, setting the rules for the referendum.

After the referendum

What happens after the referendum?

To quote the Edinburgh Agreement, the U.K. and Scottish governments “are committed to continue to work together constructively in the light of the outcome, whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom.”

Michael Dewing
Legal and Social Affairs Division

© Library of Parliament 2014