Now that gold is losing value, hopefully we can put the "Brown's bottom" myth to bed

Should the Chancellor really be a day trader?

The gold market appears to have well and truly peaked. The Perth mint puts the all-time high way back on 6 September 2011, when the bid price per ounce was $1915.55. It's now plummeted to just over $1600, and appears to be on a steady downward trajectory.

None of which will be much consolation to Gordon Brown, who famously sold most of Britain's gold reserves near the bottom of the market, between 1999 and 2002. He may have made $3.5bn from the sale, at an average price of $270; but if he'd sold on to the same reserves and sold them the day before the 2010 election, he'd have made the country just over $15bn. And he is never allowed to forget it; cries of "Brown sold the gold" are common even today.

But it's unfair to hold Brown to standards only visible in hindsight. After all, he's not magic. So what critics are really saying is "Brown should have known beforehand that gold was a good investment". And if we're holding Brown to that criticism, we have to hold his Osborne to the same standard.

When the chancellor took power, gold was selling for $1170; 18 months later, it had hit its peak. If Osborne had bought back the quantity of gold Brown sold, he'd have had to spend $15bn; but then, 18 months later, he'd have made a profit of $9.7bn, selling the gold for $24bn. Even if he'd just bought back the value of what Brown sold, spending $3.5bn on gold in 2010, he could have sold it for $5.7bn, a $2.2bn profit.

Brown didn't lose money in 2003; he just failed to make money in the years after. Osborne didn't lose money in 2010; he just failed to make money in the 18 months after. Unless we want to punish all our chancellors for not moonlighting as day traders, holding them liable for the money they didn't make is nonsensical.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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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.