What Brown could learn from Blair

Breakfast with the prime minister plus how not to question Tony Blair...

At today's breakfast jamboree for 10 years of the Health Service under Labour, Tony Blair was at his cheerleading best. Cajolling and charming at turns, he took a potentially hostile audience with him by talking to them rather than at them.

Gordon Brown must learn a little of this technique fast. The soon-to-be-outgoing Prime Minister couldn't resist a swipe at Brown's plans to set up an independent board for the NHS. It might just end up being a smokecreen to avoid making tough decisions, he said.

Whatever could he be referring to? He chose to repeat his doubts at the press briefing afterwards, so it was an entirely intentional dig. The best intervention came from The Guardian's John Carvel after the PM invoked Tory industrial reforms as an equivalent tough period for the Thatcher government.

Was Mr Blair celebrating the catastrophic dismantling of Britain's manufacturing industry, asked Carvel, a past master of these occasions. "No", said Blair, before admitting that it was probably a bad example.

There was a moment of tetchiness with ITN for asking whether he would ever go private for health treatment, but it was mostly a good-humoured affair. I said I hoped the PM's own health was good thanks to the NHS before asking whether he regretted overselling private sector involvement in the public services. Never ask a question with a yes or no answer. It's basic rule of journalism, Carvel and I should have known better. The answer to my question was "no" too by the way.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.