FIRST minister Alex Salmond has been asked to consider plans for Scotland to become a member of the international community by joining the United Nations.

The SNP leader is being urged to apply for UN observer status as part of the Executive's drive to enhance the country's global influence.

It would mean Scotland having speaking rights on one of the world's most important international bodies and give Salmond a seat at the upcoming talks on nuclear non-proliferation.

The plan has been suggested by SNP MSP Michael Matheson as a contribution to Salmond's "national conversation" on constitutional change, which he launched last week. Matheson has written to the first minister urging him to apply to join the UN.

Only sovereign states can be recognised as full members of the UN, but Matheson has received legal advice to the effect that Scotland could apply for observer status. If the application were approved, a Scottish representative could speak at UN meetings without having voting rights. UN membership would also allow a member of the Executive to attend the forthcoming talks on replacing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

One non-member state with UN observer status is the Holy See, which covers the territory of the Vatican City.

Matheson says in his letter: "As a way of developing Scotland's voice internationally, I believe the Scottish government should consider applying for UN observer status as a prelude to full membership once independence is gained. The prospects of succeeding with such an application, I believe, are reasonable, as such status is a matter for the UN rather than Westminster."

Scottish membership could be blocked by the UK, as in the case of China thwarting Taiwan. In that context, Matheson says, the Executive could apply for observer status as a non-governmental organisation, like the Palestine Liberation Organisation succeeded in doing in 1974.

Dr Rebecca Johnson, who co-founded the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, said it was legally possible for Scotland to join the UN. "Scotland's first application should be the formal one for observer status as a country of transition," she said. "This might take time, so in the interim a fallback position would be for the Executive to create a formal identity under UN rules and apply that way."

In an article for the Sunday Herald, advocate John Mayer also backs calls for a UN application. "Scotland ought to be applying to the UN for observer status as a prelude to full membership once independence is here," he said.

SNP insiders say the plan is in keeping with Salmond's desire to have Scotland represented on international bodies.

A spokesman for the Labour Party said: "The SNP's independence plans and posturing on constitutional issues are not in Scotland's interests, which is why they are so deeply unpopular with the Scottish people.The SNP's idea of a conversation is a one-way megaphone with independence the message."

A spokesman for the Executive said: "Around 1000 people have joined the debate on our national conversation website, and we welcome each and every one of those contributions, which will form part of the most wide-ranging, inclusive, imaginative and direct effort from any Scottish government to engage with every person in this country who has a view on the future of our nation."