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Covid crisis has exposed the Scottish nationalists once again

Covid crisis has exposed the Scottish nationalists once again

In London, the Covid virus is disappearing rapidly. Hospital trusts are increasingly reporting days with no new cases at all.

During the crisis, there has been a proliferation of home-made signs in rural locations telling city dwellers, with varying degrees of politeness, to turn back and go home. Will we now see messages at junctions with the M25 saying “Yokels, keep out!”?

There is one thing which areas such as Cornwall have been very happy to let in. This is of course the huge subsidies which the regions receive from taxpayers in London and the South East.

This is nowhere more so than Scotland.

Scottish regulations prevent you from travelling more than five miles from home. So English people are effectively banned from entering Scotland. But our money continues to flow across the border.

It is not just that Scotland receives its fair share of the fiscal surplus generated by London. It gets extra special amounts under the so-called Barnett formula, devised by the Labour government of the 1970s in a vain attempt to hold the SNP at bay.

The Covid crisis has ruthlessly exposed the emptiness of the nationalist case for independence.

Before the crisis, the Scottish government ran what was by some margin the largest fiscal deficit in the whole of Europe. Figures produced by the Government Expenditure and Revenue for Scotland showed the nation running a public sector deficit of 7 per cent of GDP.

In the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the SNP assumed that much of the gap could be filled by oil revenues. An average oil price of $120 a barrel was assumed, a figure which attracted disbelief at the time. Between 2015 and 2019 the actual average was less than half of this, at $57 a barrel.

During the recent crisis, the price has of course fallen still further, and it is hard to see it getting back even to $60 in a sustained way.

But the overwhelming question is: how would an independent Scotland have paid for the Covid crisis?

UK government borrowing in the month of April was easily the highest on record, at £62 billion. The Bank of England both issued debt and intensified the amounts spent on quantitative easing. So far, the market continue to have confidence, even though the Bank has, in crude terms, been printing large amounts of money.

How would Scotland have met the massive increase in its already large fiscal deficit?

If the country were in the Euro, the European Central Bank would not allow it to print money. If it kept the pound, the same would apply to the Bank of England.

In the financial crisis, as banks such as the Royal Bank of Scotland collapsed, it was the English taxpayer who rescued Scotland.

As Marx said, history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce. It is a tragedy that once again we have to bail Scotland out. It is a farce that we are not allowed into the country while we do this. Time to call it a day on subsidies for Scotland.

As published in City AM Wednesday 27th May 2020
Image: Scottish Independence via Pixabay
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Until Scotland’s currency puzzle is solved, independence is economically delusional

Until Scotland’s currency puzzle is solved, independence is economically delusional

The possibility of Scottish independence is back on the political agenda once again. And one question – which currency would an independent Scotland use? – that was crucial in the 2014 referendum has still not been resolved.

The informal use of the pound is a very risky option.

To see why, the Scottish National Party (SNP) might look at the problems which Facebook is having in getting its proposed digital currency libra off the ground. Already, companies like PayPal, Visa, Mastercard and Ebay have withdrawn as potential sponsors.

While Facebook is a company and Scotland is a country, the issue is how the currencies are backed.

Facebook proposes to back the libra by its accumulated profits held in a portfolio of “low volatility assets”. But as Barry Eichengreen of the University of California points out, “anyone who lived through the 2008 global financial crisis will know that low volatility is more a state of mind than an intrinsic attribute of an asset”.

In the face of an unexpected adverse shock to the values of these assets, Eichengreen notes that these will be subject to the equivalent of a bank run. But there is no lender of last resort able to simply print money.

By simply using sterling, as many Latin American countries do with the US dollar, the Scots would have no means of printing money if their banks were attacked in a financial crisis. Taxes would have to rise massively to support the banks.

The Scots could instead apply to join the euro. An immediate problem with this would be the rule in the Stability and Growth pact that countries in the Eurozone should keep their budget deficits below three per cent of GDP.

The UK spends only 1.1 per cent of GDP more than it raises in taxes.  Ironically, this would make us a shoo-in for euro membership, if Britain as a whole wanted to join.

In contrast, the latest figures produced for Government Expenditure and Revenue for Scotland show the nation running a public sector deficit of seven per cent of GDP.

This is obviously much higher than would be allowed in terms of membership of the euro.  It is, in fact, the highest in the whole of Europe, the next highest being Cyprus at 4.8 per cent. So to join the euro, the Scots would have to make large cuts in public spending.

If instead they decided to set up their own currency, the markets would almost certainly force similar public spending reductions on them. After all, small countries running large public deficits tend not to be viewed kindly.

This problem has been magnified dramatically by the statement by Derek Mackay, the Scottish government finance secretary, that an SNP government in an independent Scotland would refuse to repay its share of outstanding UK debt.

A massive public sector deficit and defaulting on government debt is hardly a very sound basis on which to launch any new currency.

The desire for independence is often driven by emotion rather than rational calculation. But unless the currency question is addressed and solved, an independent Scotland would live to rue the day.

As published in City AM Wednesday 23rd October 2019
Image: Scottish Independence March by Christine McIntosh via Flickr licensed CC BY-ND 2.0
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