Alex Salmond addresses a Business for Scotland event earlier today in Aberdeen. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Salmond didn't even come close to rebutting Osborne's currency threat

The Scottish First Minister offered no persuasive argument for Scotland entering a currency union with the rest of the UK.

If Alex Salmond's speech today was intended to be a "deconstruction" of Westminster's warning (delivered by the triumvirate of George Osborne, Ed Balls and Danny Alexander) that the UK would not form a currency union with an independent Scotland, it didn't go to plan. His opening gambit was to suggest, as Nicola Sturgeon did last week, that Osborne and others are simply bluffing. After a vote in favour of independence, "enlightened self-interest" would lead the Treasury to agree to share the pound. But all of the public - and private - statements by the unionist side suggest that this is no bluff: they really are not prepared to risk the health of the UK economy by placing it in an unstable currency union with a country with a decidedly poor fiscal outlook and a banking sector 12 times its GDP. 

In a tacit admission of as much, Salmond went on to make two other main arguments against denying Scotland the pound. The first was that it would impose transaction costs of around £500m per year (dubbed "the George tax" by Salmond) on UK businesses: "I am publishing today an estimate of the transactions cost he would potentially impose on businesses in the rest of the UK. They run to many hundreds of millions of pounds. My submission is that this charge – let us call it the George tax – would be impossible to sell to English business."

The problem with this argument is that it simply isn't true. The figure of £500m (less than 0.0005 per cent of the UK's GDP) is too small for it to outweigh the negative costs of a currency union between England and Scotland. But in any case, as Alistair Darling noted after the speech, Salmond's championing of the pound merely reinforces the case for the status quo. He said: "Alex Salmond was arguing against about a problem of his own making - the problem of transaction costs for business due to changing currency. Avoiding extra costs to business and not placing jobs at risk are powerful reasons why we should vote to remain in the UK and keep the pound."

As a last resort, Salmond again brandished the threat to default on Scotland's share of the UK's national debt if the government vetoes a currency union. "If there is no legal basis for Scotland having a share of the public asset of the Bank of England then there is equally no legal basis for Scotland accepting a share of the public liability of the national debt," he claimed. But any default would, as he surely knows, would render Scotland an economic pariah, destroying its creditworthiness at a single stroke and preventing it from raising the funds it needs on the international money markets. 

With arguments as weak as these, Salmond was forced to fall back on essentially political points: Westminster is bullying Scotland and Labour is dancing to the Tories' tunes. "The sight of the Labour Shadow Chancellor reading from a script prepared by George Osborne" was, he declared, "too much to bear for many Labour supporters in Scotland". With no opinion polls published since Osborne delivered his threat, it is impossible to know whether he is right about the mood of this crucial swing group. But today, Panglossian as ever, he unambiguously failed on his own terms. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder