BIRMINGHAM, England The government is calculating the cost of Scotland splitting from Britain to reinforce its case against nationalist demands for independence, a cabinet minister said on Monday.
Ministers in every government department are examining the implications of a Scottish separation on areas such as defence, welfare payments, and broadcasting, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore told Reuters in an interview.
"(There is) a sharpened focus on what is at stake if ... Scotland should go off on its own," he said, speaking on the sidelines of his Liberal Democrat party's conference in Birmingham.
The exercise would be completed before the end of the year, he added.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) won a majority in the devolved Scottish parliament in May and pledged to hold a referendum on independence within five years, some 300 years after Scotland and England were united.
Alex Salmond, the SNP leader and first minister of Scotland, is delaying the referendum until late in his five-year term so as to turn the surge in his party's popularity into stronger support for breaking away from Britain.
But keeping his political powder dry means Salmond has also given little detail about what an independent Scotland would look like.
As a result, the nationalist party was refusing to engage in a proper debate, Moore said.
"We're doing our work to make sure that we can make a good positive case about the United Kingdom and challenge the SNP on the costs and risks attached to separation," he said.
"From the SNP we've yet to hear anything about how they see energy policy, welfare policy, pensions, foreign affairs or anything else."
The government is firmly opposed to a break-up of the union with Scotland, instead offering the country greater powers to vary taxes and borrow money for infrastructure projects.
Scotland has its own legal system and already has devolved responsibility for domestic matters such as health, education and emergency services.
The call for full independence raises questions over the future of British defence assets based in Scotland, the split of oil revenues from the North Sea and what currency the country would adopt.
There have been suggestions that the SNP might offer voters a choice of full independence or greater autonomy over domestic matters but remaining within Britain.
Moore said it was not enough for nationalists to float the idea of greater devolution short of independence without providing details of how it would operate.
"What we are being offered is some vague notion of something a little bit extra that isn't quite independence, and we are invited to take that on trust.
"It's not the way anything works in politics, ever, and it's certainly not going to work with something as fundamental as the future of Scotland's role within the UK."
(Reporting by Tim Castle; Editing by Rosalind Russell)