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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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.