Richard Branson: There should be a European army - and we should privatise Radio 1

A preview of David Miliband's interview with the Virgin boss.

In this week’s NS Interview, the Virgin Group founder, Richard Branson, tells David Miliband that Europe should have a single army:

“Governments worldwide are spending more than they’re making. So, if you take the army, air force and navy, it would seem to make great sense for us to try to work as one in Europe. We’d end up having a much more powerful army, maybe an air force to try to defend the continent as a whole, and would reduce cost dramatically by working with the rest of Europe. I suspect we will end up going to war less often because we will know that Europe is that much stronger when it comes to defence and we will save a lot of money.”

Branson also calls for the privatisation of BBC Radio 1 as part of looking into “every single aspect” for saving money in Britain:

“As much as it’s great to have the BBC as a public-service operator, if you privatised Radio 1, gave it strict remits, put the money back into the rest of the BBC, that would help fund the public-service aspect of the BBC and it would make sense.”

Asked by Miliband about the crisis of culture in banking, Branson reveals that he tax-dodged when he was younger:

“I learned my lesson when I was 21 years old when I had a rap on my knuckles for trying to save some money on exporting some records and not paying my taxes properly. And I decided that I wanted to sleep well at night."

Businesses would be foolhardy, says Branson, to not hire tax lawyers:

“Our English companies will pay British taxes, our overseas companies will pay overseas taxes and lawyers will tell us how to mitigate taxes as much as possible. Every company will take that kind of advice. And not to take that advice leaves you uncompetitive.”

Richard Branson in Las Vegas. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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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.