Osborne's deficit continues to grow

Despite no shortage of austerity, borrowing was £1.3bn higher in April than in the same month last year.

As George Osborne awaits the verdict of the IMF on his great austerity experiment at 12pm, the latest borrowing figures are being written up as a positive for the Chancellor. The deficit for April came in at £6.3bn, around £2bn lower than expected, and public sector net borrowing for the previous year (2012/13) was revised down from £120.6bn to £119.5bn (compared to a deficit of £120.9bn in 2011/12).

But dig deeper into the data, and the picture isn't so positive for Osborne. Once the effects of the transfer of the Royal Mail Pension Plan and the QE coupons from the Bank of England are stripped out, the deficit stood at £10.2bn last month, £1.3bn higher than the previous year. As last month's dramatic welfare cuts showed, there's been no shortage of austerity. But the government is still borrowing more than in 2012. As for the national debt, which David Cameron falsely claimed the coalition was "paying down", that now stands at £1.2trn, or 75.2 per cent of GDP. 

George Osborne delivers a speech at media company Unruly, on April 25, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.