Now is not the time to raise MPs' pay

There is a case for raising pay, but Brown cannot make it in these tough times

Is Gordon Brown really considering raising MPs' pay to appease their anger over expenses curbs? At a time when the Labour government has promised to impose the most punitive public-sector pay freeze since the dying days of the Callaghan government, this would be a disastrous decision.

There is a case for increasing MPs' salaries but now would be the worst possible time to make it. Simultaneous cuts in ministerial salaries would ensure the taxpayer doesn't lose a penny, but that would be overlooked entirely by the public. Such a move would give succour to the populist far right and risk alienating even more voters.

And yet, and yet . . . the pragmatic argument for raising MPs' pay remains persuasive. Harry Cohen, the left-wing Labour MP, was at least honest enough to describe expenses as a de facto salary increase (one that MPs, crucially, were not taxed on). And if our parliamentarians really want to spend £10,000 a year on gardening, then scaling back expenses and raising salaries would allow them do so at their own cost.

A future wage increase could be paid for by reducing the size of our bloated parliament. India, with a population of 1.2 billion, has 543 MPs. We, with a population of 61 million, have 646s. Indeed, only the Chinese have more MPs, and they have 20 times our population. David Cameron's pledge to cut the number of seats in the Commons by 10 per cent to 585 is doesn't go far enough. Reducing it to, say, 400 would allow those who remained to be paid more at no extra cost.

But that's not an argument to make in these straitened times, and Brown should avoid what would be a politically toxic move.

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.