In this week’s New Statesman: The Pope on trial

Exclusive Mark Thompson interview | John Pilger: myth and reality | Caroline Lucas: Labour’s clones.


With just two weeks to go until the first papal visit to the UK since 1982, this week's New Statesman looks at the unending controversy surrounding Pope Benedict XVI. In our lead essay, the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson attacks the Catholic Church's claim to statehood and its protection of padeophile priests under canon law.

Also this week, in his first major interview since giving the MacTaggart Lecture, the head of the BBC, Mark Thompson, talks to James Macintyre about the corporation's past "left-wing bias", the Murdoch family and the need for budget cuts.

Elsewhere, John Pilger says the US withdrawal from Iraq is a poor disguise for America's determination to keep waging war, Tim Montgomerie says the coalition will drift leftwards unless the right organises, and the Green Party leader, Caroline Lucas, argues that the Labour leadership candidates have failed to move beyond tribalism.

Also don't miss Francis Beckett's fascinating profile of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, the former Met head Ian Blair on the coalition's failure to tackle racism, and Will Self on the noble Aberdeen Angus Steak House.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's huge deficit is an obstacle to independence

The country's borrowing level (9.5 per cent) is now double that of the UK. 

Ever since Brexit, and indeed before it, the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum has loomed. But today's public spending figures are one reason why the SNP will proceed with caution. They show that Scotland's deficit has risen to £14.8bn (9.5 per cent of GDP) even when a geographic share of North Sea revenue is included. That is more than double the UK's borrowing level, which last year fell from 5 per cent of GDP to 4 per cent. 

The "oil bonus" that nationalists once boasted of has become almost non-existent. North Sea revenue last year fell from £1.8bn to a mere £60m. Total public sector revenue was £400 per person lower than for the UK, while expenditure was £1,200 higher.  

Nicola Sturgeon pre-empted the figures by warning of the cost to the Scottish economy of Brexit (which her government estimated at between £1.7bn and £ a year by 2030). 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 considerable austerity. 

Nor would EU membership provide a panacea. Scotland would likely be forced to wait years to join owing to the scepticism of Spain and others facing their own secessionist movements. At present, two-thirds of the country's exports go to the UK, compared to just 15 per cent to other EU states.

The SNP will only demand a second referendum when it is convinced it can win. At present, that is far from certain. Though support for independence rose following the Brexit vote, a recent YouGov survey last month gave the No side a four-point lead (45-40). Until the nationalists enjoy sustained poll leads (as they have never done before), the SNP will avoid rejoining battle. Today's figures are a considerable obstacle to doing so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.