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UK Politics

'Scots are being asked to buy a pig in a poke'

Edinburgh Agreement leaves voters in the dark over crucial issues such as debt, warns expert

Voters in Scotland's independence referendum in 2014 will not know the precise share of the United Kingdom's vast £1,200bn national debt that would be transferred to a secessionist Holyrood government.

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that formal negotiations between Westminster and Alex Salmond's nationalist administration on key issues such as debt would take place only after a "yes" vote on independence.

One of Britain's leading constitutional experts claims the referendum process settled between Mr Salmond and David Cameron in the newly signed Edinburgh Agreement will mean "Scotland is being asked to vote for a pig in a poke".

Mr Salmond's claim that an independent Scotland would "automatically" be handed membership of the European Union is already the subject of heated debate. And fears that voters will not know all they should before they cast their vote suggest that the "fairness and transparency" promised by Holyrood for the 2014 vote is already being tested.

The Scottish Government will publish a White Paper on independence in November next year. The document is regarded by the nationalist government as their "prospectus" for an independent Scotland. A spokesman for Mr Salmond told The IoS: "This is what Scotland will be voting for."

However, crucial economic figures in the White Paper, such as Scotland's share of UK national debt, will be "estimated" by the Scottish Government. No formal negotiations will take place between Holyrood and Westminster before the paper is published, nor before the 2014 vote.

Although Mr Salmond's advisers insist their estimate will be "equitable", the precise figure would require protracted negotiations after a "yes" vote. These negotiations, which could take more than a year to complete, would then form the basis of a Bill in Westminster to constitutionally split Scotland from the rest of the UK. Voters in Scotland would have no say in this crucial second part of the secessionist process.

Based on a raw comparison of populations, an independent Scotland could expect to be saddled with roughly £106bn of the UK's debt and would immediately have to service this by borrowing on the international money markets.

According to one senior Salmond adviser, "equitable" means "we would take a fair share, but all debts and assets of both Scotland and England would have to be taken into account. Scotland is paying for UK assets that are not necessarily in Scotland."

The comment reflects the complexity of the negotiations that would follow a "yes" vote. Robert Hazell, head of the Constitution Unit at University College London, told The IoS: "The Scots are being asked to buy a pig in a poke. The easiest analogy would be someone deciding to buy a house they liked the look of. But without knowing the exact price, and without ordering a survey, what have they let themselves in for?"

Referring to the division of the former Czechoslovakia, Professor Hazell said: "The establishment of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992 required 31 treaties and 12,000 legal agreements. One of the big issues was the division of national debt. Splitting up the UK would be far more difficult. Estimates and guesses by the Scottish Government do not reflect the complexity ahead."