The Lib Dem leadership finally sees sense on Secret Courts

No government policy has made party members unhappier. Fortunately, Clegg is about to pledge to repeal it.

One of the best things about being a member of the Lib Dems is that twice a year you get to have a blazing row with your leadership about why they don’t know their arse from their elbow and that time is shortly upon us once again. Yes folks, conference season starts next week.
 
And as per normal there’s no shortage of rows on the horizon as the leadership suggests the party faithful back Osbornomics, ask us to agree that they were right all  along about tuition fees, and invite us to keep Trident. Oh, it’s going to be a corker this year…
 
But one of the other nicest things about being a member of the Lib Dems is that from time to time, the leadership listens, holds its hand up, accepts it go it wrong – and changes stuff. And one of those occasions will also happen next week. It seems the leadership has accepted that the party faithful may have had a point over what was THE row of Spring Conference 2013 and is prepared to reverse the legislation on Secret Courts.
 
You’ll have to hunt hard for proof of this, but fortunately I know a man with both a magnifying glass and the inside track. And in the penultimate debate of conference, a motion is being proposed by David Laws and seconded by Duncan Brack (each representing, I think it's fair to say, opposite ends of the party) inviting conference to endorse the manifesto themes paper.
 
With a foreword by Nick Clegg, hidden away on Page 22, it says:
 
We will find practical alternatives to the use of closed material proceedings within the justice system, including the provisions of the Justice and Security Act 2013, with the aim of restoring the principle of open justice.
 
Now, while the party will argue endlessly with itself over various aspects of policy on health, education, defence or the economy, give it a civil liberties issue and it will unite in a moment. Because that’s the main reason why most people join the Liberal Democrats. And as a result Secret Courts is probably the thing that’s happened in government that makes folk unhappiest.
 
And joy of joy – Nick’s held his hand up and concurred. Hats off.
 
Now, there’s a way to go yet. Conference has to vote for it, the full manifesto has to be written – and we’ve got  to be part of the next government to repeal the current legislation. There’s a way to go yet.
 
But at least we’re on the right road.
 
Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference
Nick Clegg speaks at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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.