Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond speaks at the SNP spring conference last weekend in Aberdeen. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Scottish independence poll puts No campaign 12 points ahead

The latest TNS survey suggests that the race is not narrowing at the rate the nationalists need to win. 

Judging by the more excited nationalist commentaries, one would imagine that the Yes campaign will shortly take the lead in the Scottish independence race. But today's TNS poll is a reminder of why the odds remain against it. Among those certain to vote, the Yes side is 13 points behind (46-33), while among all voters it is 12 behind (41-29). The No campaign's lead has narrowed from 14 points last month but not at the rate the SNP requires with just five months to go. (Although it's worth noting that some pollsters, most obviously Panelbase, show a smaller gap. Then again, others, such as YouGov, show a larger gap.) 

The consolation for the nationalists is the large number of voters who remain undecided, with 30 per cent of all voters and 21 per cent of those certain to vote yet to be won over by either side. 

If the Yes side is to triumph, it will need to overcome the traditional bias for the status quo in referendums (particularly in the closing stages) and reach further into the middle class heartlands of Unionism. Both remain formidable challenges. 

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.