Osborne has stolen Margaret Thatcher's 1980s manual

My conversation with Ed Balls.

I spent much of yesterday marshalling my own thoughts on the consequences of the latest GDP figures (here is the link to my column) -- not good, since you are asking. In the course of the day, I managed to speak with shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, about his views on the data and, more generally, on the coalition's economic strategy.

Ed was on robust form as ever and I thought I'd share some of his insights below. I can't do better than to quote him verbatim.

The outgoing head of the CBI, Richard Lambert, captured it well when he said: "Politics appears to have trumped economics on too many occasions over the past eight months." There is no doubt that George Osborne is a highly skilled political strategist. But he is making the classic mistake of the past 100 years in believing that you can impose a political strategy on the British economy. Cutting too far and too fast may make political sense for the Tories but it simply isn't working economically.

He then went on to suggest that this has all been drawn directly from Margaret Thatcher's playbook.

The political strategy he is implementing is straight out of Margaret Thatcher's 1980s manual: impose as much pain as you can straight after the election, raise taxes, cut spending, slash benefits, make people feel lucky to have a job, build up your war chest and then cut taxes just before the election, hope to win a majority and start all over again.

He is following Mrs. Thatcher's strategy to the letter -- right down to the immediate hike in VAT, even if it breaks a pre-election promise. But this strategy is irresponsible and dangerous. Two decades ago, our country paid a very high price because of the economic mistakes of the 1980s recession and the years of slow growth and rising unemployment that followed. Manufacturing capacity was lost permanently. A whole generation of young people saw their lives blighted by long-term unemployment.

Our society was divided, child poverty soared and our infrastructure decayed. Today, we see policies that are hitting women harder than men -- and hitting families with children hardest of all. A standard-of-living squeeze, which will choke off growth. And we have seen growth flatline in the past six months, compared to growth of 1.8 per cent in the previous six months, before George Osborne tore up Labour's plan to get the deficit down in a steadier way.

You can't get the deficit down without strong growth, with people in work and paying taxes. So when I hear Osborne refuse even to countenance the idea of putting jobs and growth first, I can see no economic judgement at work at all -- just a political gamble with the nation's economy.

The shadow chancellor's comments stand in sharp contrast to the Treasury's bizarre claim, repeated by Osborne and Cameron, that the data release was "good news", as the economy had "returned to growth", when it clearly has not. It's a strange old world when the only "positive" news that could be found was that sterling strengthened against the dollar and the euro, because some in the markets had priced in an even worse outcome. There are likely to be even worse days ahead.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.