Abolition of criminal libel will aid dissidents worldwide

The UK's move robs despots of one of their main excuses

The slow march forward of free speech in Britain continues today as the arcane laws of sedition and criminal libel are abolished. The laws, which date from the time of the Star Chamber, were used against John Wilkes to prevent him from reporting on parliament and against Thomas Paine to punish him for his anti-monarchist Rights of Man.

They may have fallen largely into disuse since (the last sedition case in Britain was over Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses) but their symbolic force remains considerable. As Geoffrey Robertson QC observed: "This law is still used throughout the Commonwealth by repressive governments to jail their opponents. Its abolition here ensures that those governments can no longer use the excuse that they are merely following British law."

Gambia, for instance, has often pointed to UK law when defending its prosecution of individuals for sedition. Six journalists in the country were recently convicted of sedition for calling on the president to admit to long-suspected state involvement in the murder of the newspaper editor Deyda Hydara. The abolition of the laws robs despots worldwide of one of their prime justifications for libel suits.

With the move coming just over a year after the abolition of the blasphemy law, perhaps we can, for once, be optimistic about the cause of free expression.

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.