Scotland's credit rating becomes an issue

Credit rating agencies warn that an independent Scotland may not inherit the UK's AAA rating.

The report in today's FT that an independent Scotland would likely not inherit the UK's AAA credit rating will be seized on by opponents of secession as further evidence that, in their view, independence would be economically damaging. One unnamed agency told the paper that it could expect to receive an investment grade rating some notches below triple A. As the FT's Martin Wolf noted in a recent column:

A newly independent small country with sizeable fiscal deficits, high public debt and reliance on a declining resource for 12 per cent of its fiscal revenue, could not enjoy a triple A rating.

In an act reminiscent of his pre-election tactics, George Osborne has already warned, with little evidence, that the threat of independence is damaging investment and that Scotland could be forced to join the euro (even without a formal opt-out, Sweden still hasn't joined after 17 years of membership).

Will Osborne now make play of the uncertainty over Scotland's credit rating? He may be wary of doing so, not least because there's an increasing chance that the UK could lose its own AAA rating. Others will rightly note that France and the US have seen little increase in their borrowing costs since their credit ratings were downgraded.

This hasn't stopped both Labour and the Conservatives going on the attack today. Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said it was "extraordinary that the SNP have not even approached the credit agencies for a draft opinion."

Scottish Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown said: "Ratings agencies are taken extremely seriously by investors all over the world and this warning is therefore deeply concerning: three of the top agencies agree that a separate Scotland would not be guaranteed a triple-A rating."

It's worth bearing in mind, however, that such scare tactics may only work to Salmond's advantage. Those who oppose Scottish independence need to remember that making the positive case for the Union, as Ed Miliband did in his recent speech, is as important.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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