Lost in Brussels

AL Kennedy on the perils of visiting Brussels, how to spot the British amidst a foreign crowd and on

Sadly, I missed getting hit on the head by police batons at the anti-Bush protests. (Why is it - and I’m asking seriously – that police are so very suggestible ? Dress them in riot gear and they do like to bust things up. Mix them with US enforcement and they get all Vietnam on your ass.) And, as we know, the police usually try to bully crowds if they are not composed of football supporters and then get pre-emptively tense about the consequences of their own actions. Inflicting head wounds with metal bars isn’t what I’d call an appropriate response to a peaceful demonstration, but then what do I know about democracy…? Depressing.

Why wasn’t I in London being prevented from walking up Whitehall in a perfectly legal manner ? Because I was working. (Ish) I had to go to Europe – by train. (Indulging my own irrational fears without hitting anyone at all.) So, up at the crack of dawn, down to London, through the Chunnel – a huge undersea chimney within which I could sample the delights of being drowned, crushed and incinerated, perhaps simultaneously. And yet I doze peacefully through it - perhaps due to lack of oxygen: many others seem to doze, too – and am relaxed as a drugged puppy. Then on to Cologne and on even further by car to Bitberg which is in Eifel, which has its own international literary prize. (Imagine Berwick having its own international literary prize, or Kettering – we just don’t do culture, do we ?)

The journey out wasn’t quite as smooth as I’d anticipated. First I had to negotiate the mingled British and non-British crowds at St Pancras – duly noting that the two groups were instantly recognisable – the non-Brits weren’t pissed, tense, whining and hitting their toddlers with shoes. Then I had to negotiate Brussels Midi, not the world’s easiest or loveliest railway station. Many of its platforms are ridiculously long and curved which means you (or indeed I) could be waiting docilely on the correct platform while a train sneaks in invisibly around the curve, hides and sneaks out again without you. (Or indeed me.) Having missed my first train, I then descended to the ticket office, where you have to take a ticket to stand in the queue for a ticket, then conduct extensive negotiations to have your ticket – the first ticket – turned extremely slowly into your third ticket, before running up to the platform in order to miss another secretive train and repeat as necessary. There was a point at which I believed that a) I would never leave Brussels again and/or b) I had died and would never leave Brussels again and/or c) I was taking part in some kind of perverse psychological experiment and would begin stress-induced gnawing at my own limbs within minutes.

But – on the bright side – Bitberg was friendly, The folks were delightful and gave me their International Prize in return for making a small speech, while lavishing me with free food, much of it asparagus-based. (It is the season for it.) The only blot on the landscape was provided by the German football team who have managed to qualify for something or other – this causing me to have to converse about football in German, when I cannot do so in English and lack essential vocabulary like goal, nippy winger and I’d rather pluck out my own eyes and throw them in a blender. That’s a fib, actually – I know how to say the last one in many languages, because it comes up so often.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.