Where does Clegg now stand on an EU referendum?

The Lib Dems supported a referendum on EU withdrawal in their 2010 manifesto.

With an ever-greater number of Tory MPs demanding a referendum on EU withdrawal, it's worth recalling that one of the three main parties has already promised one - the Lib Dems. The party's 2010 election manifesto stated:

The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in / out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.

As the leaflet below shows, the Lib Dems also campaigned on the issue.

In his speech on Europe yesterday, Clegg denounced the belief that Britain could repatriate powers from the EU as "wishful thinking", adding that "as soon as we start talking about repatriation, we descend into the in-versus-out debate". It is precisely for this reason that the Lib Dems argued for a referendum on withdrawal at the last election. More recently, however, the party has made no mention of the pledge, taking the view that, with the eurozone in crisis, now would be "the wrong time" for a vote.

With Cameron shortly expected to outline plans to hold a referendum after the next election on a "new EU settlement" for Britain, it remains to be seen how Clegg responds. Tory MPs, if not his own party, are unlikely to let him forget his recent support for a vote on membership.

Nick Clegg gives a press conference in Brussels in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.