545 days to save the Union? Countdown begins for Scottish independence referendum

Scotland will decide whether to end three centuries of union with Britain in its independence referendum on September 18th 2014.

First minister Alex Salmond announced the date of the vote for the first time in Holyrood this afternoon, confirming the day on which the referendum will take place for the first time.

The decision to choose September is unlikely to prove decisive as the 'no' campaign opposing independence has a substantial lead in current polls.

But the Scottish Nationalist party governing north of the border will hope it can persuade Scottish voters their best choice for the future lies in a break with the rest of the UK when they are asked: 'Should Scotland be an independent country?'

"This is a special occasion and I think everybody in Scotland… will understand how momentous this occasion is," deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who is overseeing the referendum for her party, said.

"It names the date on which everybody in Scotland gets the chance to take our future into our own hands. That's what independence would be all about – making sure that Scotland's future, our destiny, the big decisions that shape our lives here in Scotland are taken in Scotland.

"Independence is the means to building a better Scotland. It's about ensuring our vast resources as a country can be spent making life better for our people."

Experts say the SNP will fight a campaign focusing on policy issues, making a contest about constitutional change dependent on the current state of domestic politics.

"We will be able to stand on our own two feet, but we will not stand alone, we will have a partnership of equals," Salmond told SMPs earlier.

The Scottish independence referendum bill setting up the terms of the vote has now been published and introduced to Holyrood.