Alex Salmond looks on during the Ryder Cup Exhibition Launch at the Scottish Parliament on April 29, 2014 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Alex Salmond's forward march has been halted

The latest polls all show the Scottish independence campaign losing ground.

Labour MPs might be increasingly anxious about their party's performance in the national polls (today's Populus survey has them a point behind the Tories) but their spirits have been lifted by the latest numbers on Scottish independence. After narrowing for months, the polls have begun to move in the No campaign's favour. 

An ICM survey put the Unionist lead up from three points to 12, with the Yes vote falling to its lowest level for eight months (34 per cent), while another by Panelbase (the Yes campaign's pollster of choice) put it up from five points to seven. Across the six main pollsters, the No campaign's average lead now stands at 14 points. The nationalists' forward march has been halted. 

With just four months go until the referendum, Alex Salmond can't afford to lose ground at this stage. But losing ground he is. Having failed to lead in a single poll since the campaign began (with the exception of a biased Panelbase survey commissioned by the SNP), the Yes campaign is now trailing badly again. While it's not impossible that this will change before 18 September, it is increasingly unlikely. A narrow defeat might allow the SNP to press for devo max (and even to revisit the independence question at some point) but a defeat it will be. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.