Cyprus counterintuition part two: "Britain's next"

Are we heading down the same road?

I've already touched on one counterintuitive claim about Cyprus – that, far from being the Germans crushing the little guy, a wealth tax is actually the most progressive way out of the hole – but here's another one: Cyprus isn't that unique at all.

The Independent's Ben Chu turns against the prevailing trend, which is to argue that Cyprus, with its massive influx of questionable foreign funds, extended and deliberate exposure to Greek banks, tiny and inflexible economy, and a currency which it has no say in, is one-of-a-kind. Instead, Chu argues, there's someone who should be watching carefully: us.

We’ve nothing to be smug about here in Britain.

This chart (below) from Albert Gallo, an analyst at RBS, shows that we’re not that far behind. Despite all the deleveraging of recent years our banking sector still has assets and liabilities equal to 450% of our GDP.

Remember this next time you hear from one of the banking industry lobbyists how vital it is for the UK’s economic future to have a massive banking sector. Remember Cyprus.

Chu is slightly channeling Osborne, there (which isn't a nice thing to say of anyone, and I'm sorry). Our Chancellor made one of the earlier comments comparing Britain to Cyprus, and was pilloried for it. To be fair to Chu, Osborne's claim, that Cyprus is "what happens if you don’t show the world that you can pay your way" and is why Britain has "got to retain the confidence of world markets", is utter nonsense, while Chu's point is more interesting.

The problems in Cyprus have literally nothing to do with retaining the confidence of the world markets. Instead, have to do with buying a crapload of Greek debt in 2007, and then having a banking sector which owes billions in a currency Cyprus doesn't control.

On the face of it, that's not a circumstance which applies to Britain either. But the other aspect of the Cypriot problem is that the size of the country's banks is completely out of proportion two the size of the country's economy, and, yes, the UK's banking sector is similarly bloated – though still only half the size of Cyprus's as a proportion of GDP. I made a similar comparison in the heady days of 2011, pointing out that the UK is more similar to pre-crisis Iceland than Greece.

But the comparison just doesn't hold water beyond that. Because Cyprus's problem isn't just a bloated banking sector – it's also all those stupid moves its banking sector made, and the fact that Cyprus doesn't actually control the currency it now needs to recapitalise the banks into. (It's also, more technically, the fact that most of Cyprus's domestic law bonds are held by the Cypriot banks, which renders a partial default counter-productive). As a result, the real comparison between the UK and Cyprus is this one, from the FT's Joseph Cotterill:

That's the cost of fixing the banks' mistakes as a proportion of GDP. Cyprus is having to spend 60 per cent of its GDP on that. For comparison, that is roughly equal to America having to spend $9trn, almost 400 times the cost of TARP.

Cyprus is in a uniquely shitty situation. It's a cautionary tale for having banking debt's seven times higher than GDP, but it's more a cautionary tale about not being Cyprus.

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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496