THE SNP Government has outlined a 17-month timetable to declare independence from the UK if Scots vote Yes in next year's referendum.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said independence would be declared in March 2016 after talks with the UK to determine Scotland's share of the national debt, public assets, oil revenues, military hardware and a host of other issues.
Membership of the EU – including decisions on a possible share of the UK's valuable rebate – and other international bodies such as the UN would also be settled within the timescale, she said.
The First Minister's chief spin doctor would not "encourage or discourage" speculation yesterday that March 31 had been pencilled in as Scotland's independence day. It would be less than a year and a half after the referendum, expected in October next year. The date is when Holyrood is expected to close for the 2016 election campaign, billed by the SNP as the first vote for "an independent Scottish Parliament".
Announcing the plans, Ms Sturgeon insisted negotiations between the two governments would be conducted constructively and co-operatively and would allow a smooth transition to independence.
However, the SNP's opponents dismissed the timescale for negotiations – which UK Government sources warned would be interrupted by the 2015 Westminster election – as unrealistic and claimed it was a tactical ploy to give the Yes campaign, trailing in the polls, some much-needed momentum.
Under the SNP's plans, Scotland would remain part of the UK while talks to establish the new state took place.
A pre-independence "constitutional platform" would be put in place to give Holyrood legal powers to split from the UK, abolish the 1707 Treaty of Union and end Westminster's ability to legislate for Scotland. It would also allow a Scottish Treasury and Supreme Court to be set up and define all those entitled to claim Scottish citizenship.
After independence, the government elected in 2016 would be expected to develop a written constitution. The SNP refused to say whether Scots would be allowed to vote in the 2015 UK General Election, potentially leaving Scotland unrepresented at Westminster during the crucial independence talks.
The First Minister's spokesman said: "That issue is something that will come up in the event of a Yes vote." He also rejected claims that setting a deadline for the conclusion of talks would weaken Scotland's negotiating position.
The so-called "transition timetable" follows a call from the Electoral Commission watchdog for the Scottish and UK governments to work together to clarify what would happen in the immediate aftermath of a Yes or No vote.
Yesterday Ms Sturgeon again urged the UK Government to enter talks to prepare the ground for negotiations proper, should Scots vote Yes.
Nick Clegg yesterday said the first of Whitehall's analytical papers – dubbed the "manifesto for the UK" – will be published next Monday or Tuesday and would include "objective, dispassionate analysis".
He added: "Michael Moore [Secretary of State for Scotland] will be publishing the first of those analyses early next week but there's a huge distinction between that and what some people are urging us to do, which is in effect to prenegotiate for an outcome of a referendum I certainly hope won't happen."
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont accused the SNP of failing to address high youth unemployment, problems in the NHS and Scotland's struggling economy.
Scots Tory leader Ruth Davidson said: "This SNP Government seems to think it can declare the result before people have even had their day."
A senior Whitehall source told The Herald: "We know what they are up to: they're trying to get people to talk about a Yes vote and what happens after that. It's massively presumptuous as they're telling Scots they think it is in the bag."
Constitutional expert Alan Trench, of Edinburgh University, also cast doubt on the SNP's timetable. He said Scotland could only become independent in the SNP's timescale if the country was out of the EU initially, accepted the presence of the UK's nuclear deterrent, took on a "hefty share" of national debt and settled for a "raw deal" on North Sea oil.