Alex Salmond during his live TV debate with Alistair Darling on Scottish independence. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Scottish No campaign lead falls to six points in first post-debate poll

The race narrows again after Alex Salmond's victory over Alistair Darling. 

There were many, including myself, who questioned whether Alex Salmond's victory over Alistair Darling in Monday's Scottish independence debate would have any effect on voting intention in the referendum. But the first poll carried out since the contest suggests it may well have done. A Survation survey for the Daily Mail puts the No side down four points to 53 per cent and the Yes side up four points to 47 per cent. 

This is, of course, just one poll (more will be required to determine whether the race has narrowed) and, in common with all others since the campaign began, it puts the Yes side behind. But with three weeks to go, the gap is still narrow enough to give Unionists sleepless nights. The nationalists have long counted on a strong finish, as in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election (when the SNP overturned a double-digit Labour lead to win a majority), and Alex Salmond appears to be delivering. 

Along with Douglas Carswell's defection to Ukip today, the uncertainty over the future of the Union, that 307-year-old institution, is a reminder of just how unstable British politics is at the moment. 

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.