EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Scotland's nationalist leader Alex Salmond marked Burns Night on Wednesday, when Scots toast their national poet, by unveiling his plans for an independence referendum in defiance of government proposals.
Salmond compared Scotland's path to independence to Robert Burns' transformation in the 18th century from a simple ploughman to a literary legend as he set out plans for a vote in late 2014 on ending Scotland's 300-year union with England.
"The people who live in Scotland are the best people to make decisions about their own future. Of that there can be no doubt," Salmond told the devolved Scottish parliament.
"The question we intend to put to the Scottish people in the referendum .... is 'Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?'" the First Minister said, drawing applause from supporters in parliament where his Scottish National Party (SNP) has a majority.
Recent polls indicate only around 30 to 40 percent of the Scottish electorate support Scotland breaking away from Britain.
Others seem happy to support the SNP to lead a devolved government which can wring a good deal out of authorities in London, but do not want to break away from Britain.
Independence for Scotland would have profound economic and political consequences for Britain and its political path is being followed closely by others in Europe, including in Spain where some regions have long eyed independence.
At least seven Spanish news outlets were in Edinburgh to cover Salmond's address. After addressing parliament he was taken to brief international journalists at Edinburgh castle, backdrop to centuries of conflict between the English and Scots.
SPIRIT OF BANNOCKBURN
The government in London, which opposes independence, insists only it can grant Salmond the power to hold a legally binding vote. It wants to force an early poll before Salmond can build support for a breakaway.
The SNP leader wants to hold the referendum in autumn 2014 when he would be able to ride a wave of nationalist sentiment on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, an historic victory over the English.
The SNP leader would also benefit from the feel-good factor of Scotland hosting the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup sporting events that year. Scotland's population of around 5.2 million makes up a small percentage of Britain's 62.3 million.
Salmond quoted the Burns' poem A Man's A Man For A' That, which contains lines mocking privileged lords, to back his case.
"I'm told there are members of the House of Lords (the upper house of the London parliament) who believe that it is in their province to set boundaries on what Scotland can and cannot do.
"Perhaps they should be reminded that Burns' great hymn to equality has been heard in this Parliament before," he said.
The government also insists on a say in how the referendum is run, including the crucial issue of the type and number of questions asked. #
It prefers a simple "yes/no" ballot while Salmond said he also wanted a third option, known as "devo max," which would devolve to Scotland further powers from the British parliament in Westminster without outright independence.
London says a referendum including that question would be rigged in the SNP's favour because a three-way split in the ballot could give the separatists a win with fewer votes, and a possible consolation prize of more devolved powers if they lost.