James Purnell: I could have been Iain Duncan Smith

Former cabinet minister reveals that he proposed a universal credit to Gordon Brown.

There's quite a revelation from James Purnell in today's Times (£). He writes that he proposed a version of Iain Duncan Smith's "universal credit" to Gordon Brown and resigned after he was rebuffed.

Purnell writes:

Before I resigned from the cabinet, I proposed a similar plan to Mr Brown. But he was scared that there would be losers, and his refusal to give me any answer made me think that there was no point in staying inside the government to try to influence him.

It's now hard to find a mainstream politican or thinker who isn't in favour of the universal credit, at least in principle, and Purnell deepens the consensus. He describes the IDS plan as a "good reform" and observes (in a point obscured by George Osborne) that "we lose more money in mistakes than in fraud". As Duncan Smith is hailed by the left and the right as the most ambitious reformer since Beveridge, one can hear Purnell mutter: "I could have been a contender."

But he fails to ask the $64,000 question: is welfare reform possible at a time of high unemployment? The truth is that there are no jobs for many of the unemployed, nor will there be in the years to come. The number of long-term unemployed has more than doubled since 2008 to 797,000, while the number of vacancies has fallen to 467,000 – a jobs deficit of 330,000.

Yet, such objections aside, there's now remarkably little to choose between Labour and the Conservatives on welfare. The coalition's much-anticipated assault on universal (or "middle-class") benefits didn't materialise. Child benefit for higher earners was abolished (though the plan looks unenforceable), but the Winter Fuel Allowance, free bus passes and free TV licences were all retained in their present form.

It now seems that, against expectations, the key dividing lines of this parliament will not be over welfare reform.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.