What is the Scottish independence referendum?
For the first time in a generation Scots are getting to vote on whether they want to remain part of the UK.
Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National party (SNP), cruised to a historic victory north of the border in the 2011 election. Scottish independence never figured very prominently in the campaign or in SNP election leaflets, but the scale of his win was so large Westminster felt it needed to respect the result and hold a referendum.
In October 2012, David Cameron went up to Edinburgh and signed a deal granting Holyrood, the Scottish parliament, the power to hold the referendum. Since then, Scotland has seen a very long and hotly-contested campaign. It is the climax of everything Salmond has fought for in his political career. If he fails, the chance for independence will be gone for another generation. If he wins, he will go down in history as the man that broke the union.
When is the referendum?
The referendum will take place on Thursday 18 September 2014. Polls will be open between 7am and 10pm. Counting will start as "soon as reasonably practicable" once the polls close.
Who can vote in the referendum on Scottish independence?
Anyone can vote in the Scottish independence referendum so long as they are a British citizen resident in Scotland, a Commonwealth citizen resident in Scotland or a European Union citizen resident in Scotland. Members of the armed forces who are serving elsewhere in the UK or overseas but remain registered to vote in Scotland are also allowed to vote.
Unusually, anyone over the age of 16 is allowed to vote. This is two years lower than the 18-years-old benchmark used in general elections. It's long been an SNP policy to lower the voting age, but the party was particularly keen to do so in the referendum because young people tend to be more pro-independence than older voters. Ironically, polls show 16-18-years-olds are actually quite critical of independence, even though 18-24-year-olds are usually more enthusiastic.
Some Scottish politicians argued that Scots outside of Scotland, such as those living in London or the US, should be entitled to vote. There's about 800,000 of them in the UK alone, so they could have proved decisive. But the Scottish government said it would increase the complexity of the referendum and might lead some countries or international institutions to question the legitimacy of the vote. They were probably also influenced by the fact Scots outside Scotland would be more likely to vote to remain part of the UK.
Convicted prisoners are not allowed to vote in the referendum. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that this ban was unlawful, but it was later found that this only applied to parliamentary elections.
Where can you vote?
You can vote at your nearest polling station. A card will be delivered through your door in the days before the vote telling you where this is. It's usually a nearby school or community station.
You can also vote by post but you need to send off an application form before September 3rd. You can apply to vote by proxy and have someone go to the polling station on your behalf, although you'll need to explain why you need this service.
You can get the application forms for a postal or proxy vote on www.aboutmyvote.co.uk.
What will be on the ballot paper?
The ballot paper will be white with an official security mark for the whole of Scotland on the front and a unique identifying number and name of the relevant council area on the back.
The question will be: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" This was the framing recommended by the Electoral Commission as the most neutral. Below there will be a box for 'Yes' and a box for 'No'.
Does Scotland want independence from the UK?
It's a mixed picture. So far no poll has given the 'Yes' camp a lead over the 'No' camp. It looks as if the Better Together campaign, who are pushing for Scotland to remain in the UK, are going to win.
But it is not a given. While older voters are more likely to want to stay in the UK, younger voters are usually more comfortable with leaving. Similarly, university-educated Scots are typically keener on independence. Women are much more likely to vote 'No' than men, who appear more supportive of independence.
The best indicator of how someone will vote on independence is their view on the economy. In the vast majority of cases, someone who believes the Scottish economy will do better under independence is going to vote 'Yes', someone who believes it will do worse will vote 'No'.
What are the pros and cons of Scottish independence?
Very briefly, supporters of Scottish independence believe the country should be entirely in charge of its own affairs rather than being tied to the rest of the UK. Scotland is typically to the left of the UK, so independence would give Scots the ability to have a more generous welfare state, or a more welcoming culture toward immigrants, without the austerity policies of the Westminster government, which are often dominated by Conservatives.
Many supporters of Scottish independence believe the UK, as a political entity, is fundamentally reactionary and regressive. They want the countries of the UK to split and for its constituent parts to develop their own political culture.
They believe North Sea oil and the flexibilities of a smaller country would allow Scotland to perform strongly in the world economy.
Those who oppose Scottish independence typically believe the benefits of North Sea Oil are overstated. They also have serious concerns about currency. Salmond plans to use the pound in a currency union with Westminster if he wins the independence vote, but Westminster has said it won't allow it. That leaves Salmond facing a difficult decision. Does he set up his own currency, or try to join the euro, or just use the pound outside of a currency union? None of those options look good to international investors and all would raise concerns in Scotland's business community.
Opponents of Scottish independence are much more positive about the union, which has lasted since 1707. During that period the UK has been one of the most powerful states in the world and remained far richer than most of its competitors, leaving supporters asking why anyone would want to change it.
There are also many people, especially on the left of politics, who believe the independence movement is on the wrong side of history. They believe we are living in a more multi-national world, typified by the EU, where national borders are increasingly being torn down rather than built up.
What are the latest Scottish independence poll results?
Very mixed. Just a week ago, a YouGov poll for the Sun gave the Better Together campaign a 22-point lead, with the 'No' camp leading by 61% to 39%. But a recent ICM poll for the Scotsman gave the 'No' camp a lead of just ten points, by 55% to 45%.
In truth different polling firms give radically different results. But every single poll so far puts the 'No' camp out in front.
While there is some evidence of a surge in momentum for Salmond, any victory now would buck the historic and international trend. Typically speaking, the status quo tends to grow in strength in the final weeks of a referendum campaign, as undecided voters get nervous at breaking with what they know.