By Martin Kelly
Scottish Secretary of State Michael Moore has been forced to issue clarification statements following the publication of the UK government’s document into what it claims will be the consequences of Scottish independence.
The Lib Dem MP found himself on the backfoot after the report claimed that an independent Scotland would be treated as a brand new state, denied any of the UK’s current obligations and benefits.
However, the Scottish government immediately ridiculed the claims by pointing out that such a scenario would result in the remainder of the United Kingdom having to shoulder all of the UK’s current debt liabilities – including the tens of billions of pounds that the SNP has already accepted a newly independent Scotland would take on.
The blunder followed publication of the official UK government report that contained legal opinion from two experts that Unionists claimed backed their view that an independent Scotland would be forced out of the EU and have to re-apply for membership.
The claim that independence would see a completely new state being formed led to a series of initial comments from Westminster that insisted Scotland would lose any right to the treaties and benefits negotiated in the name of the United Kingdom.
Speaking ahead of the report's publication, a Downing Street source said: "It will say that the overwhelming weight of international precedent suggests that an independent Scotland would become a 'new state' and the remainder of the UK would be considered a 'continuing state'.
"This means that if Scotland became independent, only the remainder of the UK would automatically continue to exercise the same rights, obligations and powers under international law as the UK does.
"The UK is a party to several thousand international treaties – 14,000 treaties are listed on the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices's database."
However, the claim that Scotland would not have to meet any obligations was seized on by the Scottish government who pointed out that this included Scotland’s pro-rata share of the existing UK debt.
Within hours of the initial claims, Scottish Secretary of State Michael Moore hurriedly issued statements insisting that Scotland would indeed have to meet its share of the UK’s debt.
"We would need to have an equitable distribution of the liabilities," he said.
"I know this was an issue raised elsewhere this morning, and we will be returning to that theme in subsequent papers as it is an essential factor in this debate that merits very careful attention.
"But the principle that we would negotiate that and have an equitable distribution is pretty well established in the paper today."
The blunder was highlighted by the Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during an interview on BBC Radio Scotland. Pressed by host Gary Robertson to address the claims by the UK government, Ms Sturgeon highlighted the gaffe.
“If they believe this, if they believe they keep all the rights of the UK then does that mean they keep all the liabilities as well including the UK national debt?”
The Deputy First Minister savaged the “colonial attitude” of the UK government and added: "For the UK Government to argue that the UK will be a 'continuing state' and that an independent Scotland would have no rights betrays a near colonial attitude to Scotland's position as a nation and gives lie to any suggestion that they see Scotland as an equal partner in the UK."
There was more bad news for the UK government when one of the legal experts cited in the report backed the Scottish government’s opinion that an independent Scotland would renegotiate its membership from within the EU.
Speaking on Good Morning Scotland, Professor James Crawford of the University of Cambridge said “Scotland complies with the Acquis now” and EU membership will come “as a matter of negotiation”.
Asked if negotiation would be going on from within the EU, the academic replied: “Yes, that’s certainly true… As I say, it’s not to suggest that this process is going to be – necessarily going to be very difficult, because Scotland complies with the Acquis now.”
Professor Crawford also backed the Scottish government on UN membership and the timetable to independence.
He said: “I don’t suggest that will be difficult in most cases. EU membership will come as a matter of negotiation. UN membership will be straightforward.”
He had earlier backed the Scottish government’s independence timetable saying: “Well the Scottish estimate is about 18 months and that seems realistic.”
UK government claims that international law would force an independent Scotland out of the EU were also dismissed last year in an interview given by EC President Viviane Reding.
Asked if a newly independent state such as Catalonia would find itself expelled from the EU, Ms Reding rubbished the idea, saying that international law said no such thing.
“Come on, Come on - it [international law] doesn't say anything like this."
This afternoon the SNP claimed that the UK government’s report had unravelled, with SNP MSP Roderick Campbell, a member of the Scottish Parliament's European and External Affairs Committee and an Advocate, saying:
“The UK’s legal adviser Professor James Crawford is an extremely eminent expert and his comments back up the fact that as a country that has been part of the EU for 40 years, Scotland will remain in the EU following a Yes vote.
"This publication has completely back-fired on the UK Government and the No campaign - just like the Treasury's inept briefing at the start of the year that the people of Scotland can get independence for just a pound.
“Professor Crawford’s opinion on Scotland in Europe concurs with many others – including constitutional law expert Professor David Scheffer, Honorary Director General of the European Commission Graham Avery and former European Court Judge Sir David Edward.
“Scotland is an integral part of the EU and it is clear that other nations will want to retain access to the vast array of resources and opportunities we bring to the table.
“We have always said there will be negotiations but that will of course happen from within inside the EU and run parallel to the negotiations with the UK government between a Yes vote in 2014 and independence day in March 2016.
“If the anti-independence campaign claims to have Scotland’s best interests at heart then they will accept that, in the event of a Yes vote, continued membership will be in the best interests of Scotland, the UK and the EU.
“We believe the people of Scotland share our vision of the positive contribution we can make to the world and should enjoy normal nationhood, with full representation in Europe and a seat at the top table in Brussels.”
Alistair Darling, head of the Unionist Better Together alliance, said: "This is a formidable legal opinion from two internationally respected lawyers. Their opinions have to be taken very seriously and they can't just be dismissed by the Nationalists."