How do you price the priceless?

When a nation decides to count assets as well as incomes, it has to face some difficult questions.

The Financial Times has a report today on the efforts of the Treasury to publish the "whole-of-government accounts" for the first time. The usual practice for governments is to focus on income and outgoings, paying little heed to their assets and liabilities, but the fate of Greece put an end to that practice.

The problem with totting up everything a government owns is that their portfolio is rather different from that of, say, Barclays or John Lewis. They own things like Stonehenge:

Although unthinkable in practice, it would in theory be possible to price the site as if it were a business put up for sale, Mr Thurley [the head of English Heritage] admits. More than 1m people visit each year, with adults paying £7.50 each. “If we were to put Stonehenge on the market, we would probably sell it for a very large sum of money,” he says.

But applying a theme-park template would hardly have done justice to the ancient mystery of the stones, nor to English Heritage’s stewardship role. The fact that Stonehenge would have been ultimately lumped into an accounting category called “furniture, fittings and other” in the whole of government accounts would only have added insult to injury.

In the end, English Heritage kept Stonehenge and the vast majority of its treasures off the UK’s balance sheet by arguing that the cost of carrying out the valuation would have been out of all proportion to the benefits of disclosure. A similar approach has been taken by big museums and galleries, not to mention the Ministry of Defence, which declined to put a price tag on historical items such as the Enigma Machine, the second world war code-breaking device.

Thurley accepts that would be some benefits to English Heritage for valuing their less archaeological properties, since it would allow them to compare their performance against listed property management companies. It is hard to think of an acceptable use of valuing Stonehenge, though; the first chancellor to put the site up as collateral for a loan would probably be the last as well.

A real investment property; could do with some renovation. Credit: 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.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.