Alex Salmond, left, shakes hands with David Cameron in front of a map of Scotland after signing the historic deal for an independence referendum.

Alex Salmond, left, shakes hands with David Cameron in front of a map of Scotland after signing the historic deal for an independence referendum. Photo: Reuters

The Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, has signalled the start of a two-year campaign to persuade Scots to embrace independence, after agreeing a referendum deal with the British Prime Minister, David Cameron.

After more than eight months of intense negotiations, two men signed a detailed 30-clause agreement in Edinburgh to stage a referendum before the end of 2014, asking a simple yes or no question on whether Scotland should become independent.

[The deal] paves the way for the most important decision that our country, Scotland, has made in several hundred years. 

The deal states that both governments "look forward to a referendum that is legal and fair producing a decisive and respected outcome". The leaders said they would respect and uphold the result.

Mr Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, said the deal, agreed less than 18 months after he won a landslide victory to take control of the Scottish parliament, "paves the way for the most important decision that our country, Scotland, has made in several hundred years. It is in that sense an historic day for Scotland, a major step forward in Scotland's home rule journey".

Mr Salmond said he believed "heart and soul" he could win the referendum but, in a rare admission about the scale of the task facing his government and the Yes Scotland campaign, acknowledged he still needed to persuade a majority of the country's 4 million voters to back independence.

The SNP remains the most popular party for voters, but a poll published last night found a majority of Scots (55 per cent) opposed independence, with just over a third (34 per cent) in favour.

Mr Salmond referred several times to the quest for home rule as a "journey", a phrase many observers and critics will see as a tacit admission that he fears the SNP may be defeated and instead have to accept greater devolution to Scotland within Britain. Significantly, the phrase "home rule" has been most commonly used to refer to devolution, not to outright independence.

"Given the proper opportunity, we – the campaign, the SNP, the other parties supporting it, the civic Scotland people supporting this campaign – will be able to convince a majority of our fellow citizens that this is the right future for Scotland," Mr Salmond said.

The yes campaign would put forward a "positive, ambitious vision for a flourishing, fairer, progressive, independent Scotland".

Using noticeably cautious language, he said, "if the campaign is pitched correctly and positively about the future of this country", it would win the referendum. "Just as I have believed in independence all my life, I believe in that heart and soul," he said.

Immediately after signing the document alongside the Scottish secretary, Michael Moore, and Mr Salmond's deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, Mr Cameron left St Andrew's House, the Scottish government's administrative headquarters in Edinburgh, without a word to the waiting media.

With access to and from the building very tightly controlled, and the street outside the building closed to all traffic, the muted atmosphere belied the occasion.

In a series of television interviews, Mr Cameron said he had delivered on his promises to Mr Salmond and Scottish voters to give the Scottish parliament the legal right to stage a vote on independence.

He said he would fight vigorously to keep Scotland a full part of Britain. "This is an important day for the United Kingdom, but you can't haul the country of the United Kingdom against the will of its people. Scotland voted for a party that wanted to hold a referendum," he said.

"I want to be the prime minister that keeps the United Kingdom together, but I believe in showing respect to people in Scotland."

Downing Street believes the British government achieved a strategic success in forcing Mr Salmond to drop demands for the Scottish parliament to be allowed to stage a two-question referendum, including an extra option of greater devolution within Britain.

In exchange, Mr Salmond will be allowed to hold the referendum in 2014, a year later than No. 10 had originally hoped, and 16- and 17-year-olds will be given the right to vote.

Guardian News & Media