Magazine article The Spectator

Leading Article: Better Together

Magazine article The Spectator

Leading Article: Better Together

Article excerpt

This time two years ago, the United Kingdom stood on the brink of dissolution. The referendum on Scottish independence hung in the balance and momentum was with the nationalists. The optimism and energy of Alex Salmond's campaign stood in admirable contrast to the shrill hysteria of Project Fear, the name given to a unionist campaign that churned out ever-less-credible warnings about what would happen after separation. The union was saved, but 45 per cent of Scots had voted to leave it. So the referendum had not closed the question, but left it wide open.

At the time, the North Sea oil sector was still in fairly good health. In the SNP's economic manifesto for independence, it gave estimates of up to £7.9 billion a year for oil revenues. Then the oil price crashed -- and oil revenues are now 99 per cent lower, at £60 million. This is no freak: America has mastered fracking and doesn't need to import so much oil now, pushing the price of a barrel down from $110 to $45. This hasn't hurt the UK economy because the stimulus from cheaper fuel generally balances out lower North Sea receipts. A country of 65 million can absorb such shocks. A separate Scotland simply could not.

Had the SNP achieved its stated ambition of 'independence day' in the spring of 2016, what would it be doing now? We don't have to imagine. This week, the Scottish government published figures for its national finances. They show that the Scottish government spends £127 for every £100 it raises in tax -- a ratio unequalled anywhere else in the developed world. It can do this because so much extra money is sent up from England. For every £100 spent per English head, £120 is spent on a Scottish one.

Greece, Italy, Albania -- no country, no matter how economically distressed, has such a mismatch between state spending and tax collected. Scotland's deficit -- at 10.1 per cent of GDP -- is now twice as big as the next-worst country (Japan). No independent country could afford to run a deficit of Scottish magnitude: to borrow on world markets, you need a semblance of fiscal respectability. Even to join the European Union, Scotland's deficit would need to be below 3 per cent. So an independent Scotland would right now be facing a choice: state spending down by 15 per cent, taxes up by 19 per cent, or a combination of the two.

The cuts are certainly doable. The Scottish government machine is vast, and at times the whole enterprise looks like an attempt to recreate East Germany. Nicola Sturgeon could certainly propose a rapid slimming-down of government, and say that this is a price worth paying for secession. …

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