The Queen takes a swipe at Gordon Brown over gold sale

George Osborne was amused as the Queen said that "regrettably" the UK's gold bars "don't belong to us".

Unlike Prince Charles, the Queen usually avoids making political interventions, but she lapsed while visiting the cabinet today. Walking along the line of ministers inside No. 10, she reached George Osborne (see video above) and, in a reference to her recent visit to the Bank of England, remarked, "I saw all the gold bars, which regrettably somebody said don't belong to us."

An amused Osborne replied: "Some of them were sold, but we've still got some left." The politically-minded Chancellor resisted the temptation to add "sold by Gordon Brown". Between 1999 and 2002, Brown sold 60 per cent of the UK's gold reserves (395 tonnes) for an average of $275.6 an ounce, only to see prices subsequently rise to above $1,600 (£986).

In 2010, Osborne declared: "Gordon Brown's decision to sell off our gold reserves at the bottom of the market cost the British taxpayer billions of pounds. It was one of the worst economic judgements ever made by a chancellor." At a time when his own strategy has failed dramatically, Osborne will no doubt be pleased to discover that the Queen appears to agree.

The Queen sits next to David Cameron as she attends the government's weekly cabinet meeting. 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.