LONDON – British Prime Minister David Cameron will hold talks with Scotland's leader this week on plans for an independence ballot, his office said Monday, with the two expected to wrangle over the timing of a vote that could break up Britain.
Cameron will travel on Thursday for a first meeting with Alex Salmond, whose party has long campaigned for Scotland to leave the United Kingdom and go it alone for the first time in more than 300 years.
Salmond hopes to hold the referendum in the fall of 2014, likely in September. A "yes" vote would lead to independence and a May 2016 election for the Scottish Parliament.
With opinion polls showing that only about a third of Scots currently favor splitting the nation, Cameron and others opposed to independence are pressing for the vote to be held earlier.
Scotland and England united in 1707 to form Great Britain, but Scotland gained significant autonomy after voting in 1997 to set up the Edinburgh-based Scottish Parliament.
Its legislature has autonomy over education, health and justice and can make minor alterations to income tax. However, London retains primacy on all matters relating to Britain as a whole -- including defense, energy and foreign relations.
The other nations of the U.K. also have administrations with some limited powers. Wales voted for a national assembly in 1997, while the Northern Ireland Assembly was created to provide cross-community government in the province under the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998.
Salmond held initial consultations with Michael Moore, the British Cabinet minister responsible for Scotland, in Edinburgh on Monday, acknowledging there are "key points of disagreement" between the two sides.
Britain's government and Scotland's administration also differ over whether 16- and 17-year-olds should be entitled to vote and over what question should be put to Scots.
Alongside the choice to accept or reject full independence, Salmond has suggested the ballot could include a third option, backing increased autonomy and additional tax-raising powers for Scotland's government.
"There is no question that we still have some way to travel to reach agreement on some important aspects of the referendum," Moore said following the talks.
"I am still not convinced that the people of Scotland should have to wait nearly three years to have their say on independence," he said.
Moore suggested that a vote could take place in 2013 and insisted Britain's government opposes the idea of adding a third option of increased autonomy to the ballot.
"An independence referendum should be a straight question on independence. Whether Scotland should be part of the U.K. is the issue we are dealing with," he said.
Salmond joked that his scheduled brief talks Thursday with Cameron are similar to the British leader's calls on his counterparts during overseas trips.
"Courtesy visits are usually what prime ministers do to foreign heads of state -- I don't know if that's what Downing Street meant to imply," Salmond said.
Salmond insists that full independence, which would create a sovereign country of 5 million people, would bring greater prosperity and allow England and Scotland to better pursue their own national interests.
He has pledged that an independent Scotland would keep Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.