Gandhi and the Red Dean

How the Mahatma won one schoolboy's gratitude

As the world, led by President Obama, celebrates what would have been the 140th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, I offer readers a short anecdote that an old acquaintance with a long memory told me in my teens. In 1931 the great man spent 12 weeks in Britain, and while he was here he paid a visit to the Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, later to become infamous as the "Red Dean" over his support for the Soviet Union and opposition to nuclear weapons. You can find a rather atmospheric photograph of their meeting here and here.

During his time in Canterbury, Gandhi took the time to chat to some of the pupils of the King's School, which is situated in the cathedral grounds. On one occasion, however, this caused one of them to be late for a lesson -- not an event that would go without notice in the disciplined environment of a 1930s boarding school. "Where have you been?" demanded the young teacher (none other than the friend who was to relate this incident to me over 50 years later).

This produced what my friend reckoned was probably the best excuse for tardiness he was ever given. "Sir, I've been talking to Gandhi, sir," replied the boy.

"Pretty unbeatable," remembered my friend -- and I think you'd have to agree.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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.