Why the SNP shouldn't be celebrating the UK's pledge to guarantee Scotland's debt

The move reflects the justified belief among investors that Scotland's debt position would be weaker than that of the UK.

The SNP is busy spinning today's pledge by the Treasury to guarantee all UK debt in the event of Scottish independence in its favour. Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: "UKG debt announcement today marks the moment that common sense & mutual self interest begins to trump #projectfear", while Alex Salmond declared that the move meant Scotland would be in "an extremely strong positon to negotiate a fair deal." 

The announcement means that rather than transferring a proportionate share of UK gilts to Scotland following independence, the British government will continue to guarantee them and expect the Scottish government to reimburse it accordingly. Here's the key passage from the Treasury paper: 

1.1 In the event of Scottish independence from the United Kingdom (UK), the continuing UK Government would in all circumstances honour the contractual terms of the debt issued by the UK Government. An independent Scottish state would become responsible for a fair and proportionate share of the UK’s current liabilities, but a share of the outstanding stock of debt instruments that have been issued by the UK would not be transferred to Scotland. For example, there would be no change in counterparty for holders of UK gilts. Instead, an independent Scotland would need to raise funds in order to reimburse the continuing UK for this share. 
 
1.2 An entirely separate contract between the continuing UK Government and an independent Scottish state’s Government would need to be established. The respective shares of debt and the terms of repayment would be subject to negotiation. 

The reason for this move, as Danny Alexander has just explained on Sky News, is the danger that the UK's borrowing costs could rise in advance of the referendum as investors demand a "risk premium" on the basis that an independent Scotland would be less creditworthy than the UK (even after the loss of the latter's AAA rating). 

Owing to Scotland's weaker fiscal position, investors would demand higher returns on debt held by its government, which is precisely why the SNP was wrong to greet the announcement as a vindication. As the IFS (which has no stake in the race) recently noted, Scotland's lower birth rate and lower immigration rate means it automatically incurs a larger "fiscal gap" (the difference between spending and revenue) of 1.9%, compared with 0.8% for the UK. Even in the most optimistic scenario, Scotland would need to raise taxes or cut spending by an additional £2bn (such as through a 8p rise in the basic rate of income tax or an increase in VAT to 27%, or a 6% reduction in public spending) to achieve a sustainable debt level. Should oil revenues prove less buoyant and borrowing less cheap than the SNP anticipates, this figure could rise to £9.4bn (the equivalent of an 18p rise in the basic rate or a VAT rate of 36%), a scale of austerity that makes George Osborne look like a Keynesian. This doesn't mean that an independent Scotland wouldn't be economically viable, but it does mean that most voters would be worse off. 

The real significance of today's announcement is that investors rightly believe that Scotland's debt position would be weaker than that of the UK - and that is nothing for the SNP to celebrate. 

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon present the White Paper for Scottish independance at the Science Museum Glasgow on November 26, 2013 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

CREDIT: GETTY
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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum