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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.