Brussels over Britain

Tory politicians' behaviour over the EU shows their contempt for ordinary people -- and their confid

At a time when many people can't find jobs, many others are struggling to pay the bills, and many more are slipping into an ocean of debt, the Conservative Party shows how much it's in touch with the electorate by having the same old fight about Europe.

While Britain sinks into poverty, it's time for the age-old EU hokey cokey. Are we in? Are we out? Are we going to shake it all about? Are we going to have a referendum, or just sit around talking about a referendum? More to the point, does anyone care? People are suffering out there, really suffering, and it's not going to stop anytime soon.

Go and look with your eyes. People can't afford to buy their shopping; they can't afford their electricity bills; people are going to die this winter because they're going to worry about leaving the heating on. And our political masters, with their subsidised bars and canteens and lovely second homes on expenses, are getting worried about our part in European integration. They're more concerned about Brussels than they are about Britain. What more evidence could there be of the contempt in which ordinary people are held by our political classes?

It's a bit of a spectator sport for everyone who isn't in the Conservative Party, a chance to sit back and enjoy watching them bruise each other and get all upset. It's tempting to just chuck the Tories in a room and marvel as they beat each other up. And yes, those of us on the so-called "political left" might raise a familiar smile at the infighting of the Tories. It's a much-worn stereotype that while the right patch over their differences, the left get mired in attacking each other.

Any of us who has, at one time or another, been involved in leftish causes will recognise the familiar scenario: after five hours of arguing over points of order and constitutional wrangling about who is going to be voted into the pencils and paperclips sub-committee, there are only three and half minutes left at the end to discuss how we're going to smash the state. Watching Tories squabbling over Europe is a reminder that they, too, can be irrationally bogged down with the same old arguments.

But no one should take any pleasure from Tory infighting over Europe. Labour shouldn't; their Coalition partners -- so often the human shield against the public when it comes to unpopular policies -- shouldn't; and we shouldn't, either. Because this resurfacing of the Europe question indicates that the Conservative Party is getting its feet under the table of Government and preparing for a second term in office.

They're not worried about electoral defeat in 2015, or the fact that their policies are going to make millions of us miserable and worse off: that they are already back to beating themselves up over Europe means they're pretty confident that they've sold their message and can get on with the business of being in charge -- where they belong, where they are entitled to be, and where they were born to be.

What that indicates is that the Conservative Party are confident about their administration and comfortable enough with it to have a punch-up in public. They believe they've sold the "we inherited this mess" trope successfully enough to the electorate, and are pressing ahead with their Small State, Big Society agenda safe in the knowledge that a large chunk of their potential voters will blame Gordon Brown for any hardship they are enduring right now, and will be enduring for some years to come.

The rift over Europe -- the faultline that runs through the Conservative Party and has done for so many years -- is not going to go away, but that it has popped up so soon in this administration could be an indication of strength rather than weakness. The economy may be spluttering, the dole queues may be lengthening, the struggle to pay the bills may be increasing, but the Tories are so confident that they're in charge, they're happy to play out the same old Europe pantomime. It should worry anyone who hopes for a change of government at the next general election.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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.