Simon Singh wins libel case

British Chiropractic Association drops its case against science writer.

I've just heard the fantastic news that the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has dropped its libel case against Simon Singh.

The scientist, who has contributed to the NS in the past, was sued by the BCA after he wrote a piece for the Guardian describing the association's claim that spinal manipulation could be used to treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding conditions as "bogus".

But it always looked likely that Singh would triumph after the appeal court ruled earlier this month that he could rely on a defence of "fair comment".

This case became a cause célèbre ("Simon Singh" is currently trending on Twitter) precisely because it highlighted the chilling effect that Britain's libel laws have had on free speech and scientific inquiry.

Jack Straw's libel reform plan, which would have capped lawyers' success fees at 10 per cent, fell victim to the Parliamentary 'wash up' but all of the three main parties have now committed to libel reform in their manifestos.

Reducing the cost of libel cases, as Straw promised, is a necessary reform but it is not a sufficient one. London has become the libel capital of the world, not just because of the sums claimants can win, but because it is easier to win a case here than in any comparable democracy. Only English libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant, meaning the odds are stacked against authors and publishers from the start. Any future government should shift this burden from the defendant to the plaintiff as a matter of urgency.

 

Join us for the first TV leaders' debate tonight.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.