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This month, Mr. Cameron told the British Broadcasting Corp. that “we owe the Scottish people something that is fair, legal and decisive, so in the coming days we will be setting out clearly what the legal situation is.”

The British government is said to favor a simple choice between independence and union with Britain. The SNP wants a third option on the ballot: a “devolution-max” - something less than full independence - that would let Scotland assume responsibility for everything except defense and foreign policy.

“There is a huge movement for change, whether that’s more powers within the U.K. or as an independent country,” said Joan McAlpine, an SNP member of the Scottish Parliament. “We feel people do want change. It’s just a matter of time before we win.”

An opinion poll last week indicated that 61 percent of Scots oppose full independence, but 58 percent would vote for the “devolution-max” option.

Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom since the 1707 Act of the Union joined the Scottish and English parliaments into one national legislature seated in London.

For centuries, English kings coveted Scotland and often launched brutal invasions that laid waste to entire towns. The 1995 film “Braveheart” depicted the struggle between England’s King Edward I and the Scottish hero William Wallace.

Ironically, a Scottish king, James VI, inherited the English throne in 1603 after the death of Elizabeth I, a distant cousin.

Yet the two countries remained independent until Scotland nearly went broke in the 1690s in a scheme to establish a trading colony in Panama. The English took advantage of the financial disaster and bribed many leading Scottish noblemen and businessmen to support the union.

Scottish poet Robert Burns famously wrote that Scotland was “bought and sold for English gold.”

Oil-rich but poor

Even if the Scots choose independence from England, they could remain part of the British Commonwealth of Nations, countries that recognize the British monarch as head of state. Those nations include Australia, Canada, New Zealand and many Caribbean countries.

The motivations behind the Scottish independence movement are diverse, but nationalist sentiment has risen since the 1970s, when high-grade oil was discovered off Scotland’s east coast.

Unlike Norway, just across the North Sea, where oil wealth has contributed to building one of the world’s richest economies, Scotland has remained relatively poor as billions of dollars in oil revenue have gone straight into the coffers of the government in London. Many impoverished areas of Scotland suffer from high unemployment and low life expectancy compared with other Western European countries.

An independent Scotland would have a border running northeast from Berwick-upon-Tweed near the English city of Newcastle, giving the country a significant slice of an oil field that last year brought in $21 billion, according to the British Office of Budget Responsibility. Nationalists say that could significantly improve the lives of ordinary Scots.

A further devolution of powers to Scotland is already on the table. The Scotland Bill, which the British government says will be passed into law in coming months, includes measures to extend the Scottish Parliament’s budgetary powers by giving it control over income tax and borrowing in exchange for a cut in funding from the British government. It has met strong resistance from the SNP.

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