Leader: Lord Ashcroft’s public service

In the demonology of the left, Michael Ashcroft ranks somewhere between Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch. The Conservative peer is still loathed by many as the man who sought, in the words of Peter Mandelson, to “steal the election” in 2010 for David Cameron. Yet since standing down as deputy Tory chairman that year, the self-made billionaire, profiled by Andrew Gimson on page 30, has emerged as a complex figure who defies easy caricature.

A prolific pollster, Lord Ashcroft has published detailed research in the past year on Ukip, the Labour Party, the Corby by-election and the lack of support for the Conservatives among ethnic minorities. Rather than reserving his findings for his own party, he makes them freely available on his website. As he wrote in the introduction to It’s Not You, It’s Them, a recent collection of his psephology, he publishes his research because he likes “to offer new evidence as to how voters see things, and to provoke discussion and debate”. It is a public service for which all parties are grateful.

With a better understanding of voters’ opinions than most elected politicians, the peer now specialises in delivering uncomfortable truths to the Tories. On the day Mr Cameron made his promise of an EU referendum, he warned that Europe “barely registers” on the public’s list of concerns and that it was time to “move the conversation on to what the voters want to discuss”. During last year’s Conservative conference, he denounced a poster featuring the slogan “Labour isn’t learning” as “daft” and “juvenile”.

Besides serving as the nation’s pollster-in-chief, he funds ConservativeHome, the website edited by Tim Montgomerie, the non-partisan PoliticsHome and Biteback Publishing, which issues many good books from both left and right. While those Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates who fell victim to his marginal seats operation may never forgive him, he remains a businessman dedicated to reminding politicians that, however much they might wish otherwise, they cannot dissolve the people.

 

Michael Ashcroft. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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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.