A MOVE to block pre-referendum talks on independence between Westminster and Holyrood ministers is an attempt by the UK government to “scare” Scots into voting No in 2014, one of the SNP’s most senior figures has claimed.
SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson yesterday insisted it was “perfectly possible” for the UK to enter into negotiations about splitting up the United Kingdom ahead of the referendum. The latest bitter row between the SNP and Tory-Lib Dem governments came after Scottish Secretary Michael Moore issued a stark warning that Westminster would veto any early talks about how UK assets and debts would be shared with Scotland in the event of a Yes vote.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell stepped into the row to warn that any formal talks between the UK and Scottish governments before the referendum in 2014 would be used by the SNP to promote independence.
The Scottish Lib Dem grandee also said pre-referendum talks would lead to the British government being accused of “giving up” ahead of the 2014 vote.
However, Mr Robertson dismissed a claim by Mr Moore that it would be a “betrayal” of Scots for officials in Edinburgh and London to begin preparations for independence in advance of the 2014 vote.
Mr Robertson said the Lib Dem Cabinet minister’s refusal to hold pre-referendum talks was “part of the tactics” of the unionist parties to “smear” the Yes Scotland campaign.
The SNP government issued a statement claiming it was in “everyone’s interests that preparations are in place” for a possible Yes vote well in advance of the referendum.
Senior Yes Scotland figures last night claimed vetoing talks on preparing for independence would make it much harder to transfer responsibility for key areas, such as pension and welfare benefits, from Westminster to Holyrood if Scots vote Yes.
Mr Robertson, speaking on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, called on UK ministers to agree to preparatory talks along similar lines to those between the two governments held in advance of the “Edinburgh Agreement” last year that handed Holyrood the power to hold a legal referendum.
He said: “I don’t see why it would be so difficult, given that the UK and Scottish governments held technical discussions ahead of the Edinburgh Agreement. It seems to me perfectly possible and sensible to have technical discussions before a Yes vote.
“This is all part of the tactics being used by the anti-independence parties, who want to say we can’t do this and we can’t do that.
“The anti-independence campaign should spend less time on smears and scare stories, and should instead embrace a real debate on these issues.”
Mr Moore, writing in Scotland on Sunday yesterday, set out his opposition to the SNP demand for pre-referendum talks and said even after a Yes vote, the UK government would “prioritise” the interests of the rest of the UK and not give the Scottish Government everything it wanted.
Sir Menzies, also speaking on Sunday Politics, said officials such as those at the Ministry of Defence would be looking at the implications of independence, but insisted Mr Moore was right to rule out formal talks.
He said: “I’m sure that there will be a group of people at the Ministry of Defence looking at the implications.
“But if they started negotiations now, there would be a running commentary and the talks would never be kept secret.
“The negotiations would form part of the argument. It’s sensible not to indulge in the negotiations that have been suggested.
“If there were to be that kind of negotiation, the SNP would say they [the UK government] had conceded the argument. They would say the UK government had given up.
“That way would be susceptible to publicity.”
Former UK chancellor Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign, insisted negotiations could only be pursued if Scots voted Yes next year.
The Labour MP said: “The whole point of having a referendum is to determine whether or not the Scottish Government gets a mandate to begin negotiations on separation.”
Former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind dismissed the SNP’s demand for talks before 2014 as a “juvenile” tactic to increase support for independence, which he insisted would be heavily defeated in 2014.
He said: “All the SNP is trying to do is to create an atmosphere to suggest that independence could be achieved.”
However, the Scottish Government said negotiations would help to inform voters.
A spokesman said: “It is in everyone’s interests that preparations are in place, and that is exactly what the Scottish Government is doing.”
SNP MSP John Wilson warned that preventing pre-referendum independence talks could lead to a “rushed settlement” on the transfer of powers and division of assets. He said: “It’s essential that civil servants are given the flexibility to look at the different scenarios facing Scotland post the referendum in 2014.
“Any delays only create the risk of a rushed settlement after a Yes vote. Unless issues such as welfare benefits, National Insurance and pensions are looked at prior to independence, the process of transferring all these powers may be hampered.”
Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the pro-independence Scottish Greens, said: “If it was possible to behave calmly and rationally, then I would have hoped for some preparatory talks, but I’m not surprised this is not going to happen.”