Penguins out on St Andrews Bay, Antarctica
Ministers from both Scottish and UK Governments are locked in negotiations relating to who controls legal rights over Antarctica after it emerged that UK rights in the continent were devolved to Scotland by accident.
Salmond's Government is pleased that the British Antarctic territorial rights are now under Scotland's control after responsibility for the region was handed to the Scottish Parliament by the Blair Government in 1998. Under existing rights the Scottish Government can decide whether or not Antarctic expeditions will be given permission to undertake research projects and perform geographical surveys crucial for oil exploration.
Tony Blair’s Government reserved activities in outer space to the UK Parliament but apparently forgot to reserve control of Antarctica.
Prime Minister David Cameron wants London to regain the rights over the 660,000-square mile UK Antarctic territory and amendments have been added to the Scotland Bill aimed at having them 're-reserved'. However, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond - with an overall SNP majority in Holyrood - can effectively veto the legislation currently going through the House of Lords.
The Scottish Government consider it in Scotland's interests to retain the UK's rights of Antarctica which is believed to contain huge reserves of oil and gas.
The First Minister could use rights over the territory as a negotiating chip to reverse the previous transfer of Scottish territorial waters to English legal jurisdiction. A last minute Henry McLeish amendment to a Holyrood vote in 1999 controversially redrew the boundary between Scottish and English waters 60 miles North from Berwick upon Tweed to Carnoustie. It is believed that by moving the demarcation line, UK Government revenues from several oil drilling fields are no longer attributed to Scotland in Government accounts.
Scottish Ministers maintain that “as a matter of principle” they will oppose returning any rights currently held within the competence of the Scottish Government to Westminster. However they are showing a willingness to compromise by permitting the Foreign Office to grant licences for research expeditions.
Salmond's Holyrood majority means the SNP can single-handedly reject the proposed Scotland Bill. The Scottish Government have aleady expressed deep scepticism over proposals to devolve limited extra financial powers to Holyrood coupled with London’s intention of "clawing back" an array of important powers from Holyrood.
Lord Sewel of Gilcomstoun, a former Labour Scottish Office minister, railed at the Blair Government’s error in a Lord’s debate concerning the Scotland bill.
Lord Sewel said: “It is a disgrace that, because of the incompetence of ministers in 1998, we have had to re-reserve Antarctica.”
The UK government is reportedly deeply concerned over control of Antarctica given the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum. Should the Scottish electorate vote to create a new Scottish state, the Scottish government would likely stake a permanent claim to Antarctica during independence negotiations with Westminster.