A Tale of Two Elections

The Republican primaries make good spectator sport and are conveniently conducted in English. The ra

The British media are predictably mesmerised by the US Republican primary campaign and with good reason. It is a fiercely competitive race between colourful candidates. Newt Gingrich's victory in South Carolina puts pressure on Mitt Romney, the front-runner, to deliver a "knockout punch" in Florida.

As political spectator sport goes, this is end-to-end stuff. And, of course, it matters. The winning candidate will run against Barack Obama and so potentially emerge as President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of what remains - until China catches up some time in the next decade or three - the most formidable power in the world. It is worth keeping an eye on who is in the frame for that job.

Still, the US vote that really counts isn't until November. Meanwhile, in our political backyard, campaigning is under way in another presidential poll - in France. The first round of voting is on 22 April. Francois Hollande wants to unseat Nicolas Sarkozy and take back the presidency for the Socialist party first time since 1996. On the fringe, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front, is hoping to repeat the success of her father, Jean-Marie, who stunned the European political establishment by elbowing his way into the second round presidential run-off against Sarkozy in 2002.

France's constitution gives the president extraordinary powers - far more than are wielded by the US head of state, whose hands are often tied by Congress. The country is absolutely central to the diplomacy that is currently going on around attempts to resolve the European single currency debt crisis and the negotiations over wider reforms to the European Union. It shouldn't have to be said that the outcome of a presidential election across the channel matters every bit as much to Britain - and arguably much more - than the outcome of a contest over the Atlantic.

You wouldn't have guessed it from the proportion of attention paid by our media. It is, of course, easier to follow US politics - the Americans conveniently do battle in our native language. But that point of access creates a false sense of cultural and political proximity. Britain's strategic alliance with Washington stays remarkably stable regardless of who is in the White House. It is a partnership built on defence and security collaboration.

By contrast, our economic fortunes could be quite substantially affected by the outcome of European negotiations, which, in turn, are substantially affected by diplomatic relations with the French head of state. The prospect of that job going to the Socialist candidate for the first time in 16 years (who, by the way, is campaigning on a populist anti-Big Finance ticket) merits perhaps more attention than it has thus far earned.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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.