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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle