EDINBURGH — Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, took the first formal step on Wednesday toward an independence referendum that the government in Edinburgh hopes will secure a mandate from Scotland’s five million people for the country’s withdrawal from the United Kingdom within as little as five years.
After years of skirmishing on the issue, Mr. Salmond’s plan for the independence vote, including a target date for the ballot in the fall of 2014, set the stage for what some in Britain have described as a high-stakes constitutional poker game pitting Mr. Salmond against the British prime minister, David Cameron, with the prize the right to dismantle — or preserve — Britain’s existence as a united country. Each man, too, might struggle to survive politically if the referendum should go against him.
Mr. Cameron has insisted that only Parliament in London has the legal power to approve a referendum on the potential breakup of the union between England and Scotland, which was forged in the Act of Union of 1707. He has also said London, not Edinburgh, should set the terms and timing of the vote.
Mr. Salmond has rejected those positions, and on Wednesday he threw down the gauntlet. Outlining his own terms for the ballot, he set a May deadline for the conclusion of a public “consultation” on its terms, and suggested that Mr. Cameron would have little choice, in the end, but to bow to whatever format the Salmond government adopted.
“The terms of the referendum are for the Scottish Parliament and the people of Scotland to decide,” Mr. Salmond said in a parliamentary statement that was interrupted by applause from lawmakers of the Scottish National Party, which he led last year to a sweeping election victory that opened the way for a renewed push for independence. Likening Scotland in its bond with England to a trapped bird, he added: “The bird has flown, and cannot now be returned to its cage. I believe this journey represents the aspirations and the ambitions of the people of Scotland.”
In Parliament, and with reporters later, Mr. Salmond described the referendum plan as a move to retrieve the independence that Scottish kingdoms had defended for 1,000 years before the merger that created the United Kingdom. He held out the prospect of England and Scotland’s prospering as “equal partners,” instead of maintaining a relationship in which England had exercised effective dominion. He cited opinion polls showing that many in England — a majority, in one recent survey — favor Scotland’s breaking away, rather than continuing with what has often been, at least politically, a fractious and sometimes embittered partnership.
The 2011 election victory brought the nationalists closer than ever to a goal that the Scottish National Party has pursued ever since its founding almost 80 years ago. But realists in the party acknowledge that the referendum will pose formidable political odds.
Some recent polls have suggested that the nationalists’ cause may have crested in the wake of the party’s election win. Even the polls most favorable to the nationalists show more than 60 percent of Scottish voters against a breakaway.
But Mr. Salmond, a 57-year-old former oil economist who is seen by his opponents as a canny operator with a personal popularity unmatched among Scottish politicians, exuded optimism. “I’m confident, absolutely confident, that we’re going to win this argument,” he told reporters, pointing to the surge in support for his party during the election campaign last year.
To this, in Parliament, he coupled a sense of destiny. “Independence is about Scotland joining the family of nations in our own right,” he said. “We can stand on our own two feet, while working closely with other nations, our friends and neighbors.”
The Scottish leader’s gift for striking political chords with a deep resonance among Scots was reflected in his choice of one of Scotland’s high days — the annual commemoration of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, on Jan. 25, 1759 — to kick off the referendum process. He quoted liberally from the poet’s works, including one passage in which Burns wrote, with reference to the union with England, of the “annihilation” of Scotland’s historic independence. And the choice of 2014 for the referendum seemed inseparable from the fact that it will be the 700th anniversary of the historic Scottish victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn.
The political symbolism extended still further, with Mr. Salmond setting his news conference after his parliamentary announcement in the Great Hall at Edinburgh Castle, a craggy bastion high above the city that has its own storied history, as Mr. Salmond emphasized, in the centuries of battling the English. At times, in a chamber hung with ancient pikes and swords and battle-axes, he had to raise his voice to be heard over the howling of a bitter winter wind around the castle ramparts.
The Scottish leader played down the practical difficulties of ending the union, matters that have caused independence opponents, including Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition blocs in the Scottish Parliament, to warn of havoc for Scotland if the nationalists win the referendum. His plan calls for Queen Elizabeth II to remain the monarch of an independent Scotland, for Scotland to continue using the British pound as its currency and for Scotland to be accepted readily as a member of the European Union, all issues that constitutional and economic experts say could prove problematic.
In his remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Salmond waved off alarms about the loss of billions of pounds in annual transfer payments from Britain, saying Scotland would more than offset the loss by gaining control of 90 percent of Britain’s North Sea oil reserves. He also said an independent Scotland would demand that Britain remove bases on the River Clyde for Britain’s fleet of nuclear missile submarines, and pay for environmental cleanup costs that experts have said could run into the billions. For decades, the bases, with fast access to strategic areas of the North Atlantic, have also been host to port visits by American nuclear submarines.
But before all of that, Mr. Salmond has said, he will try to reach an agreement on the referendum terms with Mr. Cameron. The British prime minister has said that as part of any deal that gave constitutional legality to a Scottish-run vote on the issue, his government would seek a date earlier than 2014. Mr. Cameron wants the earlier date because, he has said, uncertainties over Scotland’s future deter investments. He also wants an “up or down” question on the ballot, to give voters the choice of approving or rejecting independence. Mr. Salmond’s plan envisions seeking approval in his consultation exercise for a third choice, full autonomy for Scotland within the United Kingdom, which the Cameron government opposes as a way station to independence.