Withdrawing Agreement

“Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.” – Sir David Frost

I was preparing this week to talk about the “Meaningful Vote” in the House of Commons which would have ratified or rejected Theresa May’s woefully inadequate Brexit deal.

A parody timeline of the Brexit negotiations. An incomprehensible tangle of flow lines point to scenarios such as "We're screwed", "Bring back Nick Clegg" and "Jacob Rees-Mogg as PM".

But things have progressed somewhat since I started planning that post. In a direction not necessarily to the advantage of the UK government. Theresa May, Strong and Stable, took her deal from the table.  She started into the face of the humiliation of losing a vote possibly by a triple digit majority and ran away to try to renegotiate with the EU – who have already said that renegotiation is not possible. If it turns out that they were not entirely solid on that principle, then they’ll surely exact a high price for any changes.

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As Many As Are Agreed

“No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws applied, nor the ability to decide to exit the arrangement.” – Dominic Raab in his resignation letter as Brexit Secretary.

I pity the journalists who have to do this kind of thing for a living. Especially the ones who have to wait several hours before seeing their article in print. A week is a lifetime in politics. Today, an hour merely felt like one.

BrexitAgreement

The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement has finally been agreed between the EU and UK negotiating teams. It has also been agreed by the Cabinet of the government – albeit only “collectively” (read: not unanimously – merely by majority. Rumours speak of an 18-11 vote). It now needs to be passed by the UK and EU Parliaments and then it’s done. So…what could go wrong?

So, what’s in it and what has happened

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We Need To Talk About: GERS (2017-18 Edition)

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.” – Mark Twain

There’s no day that’s guaranteed to set the heather alight amongst Scottish political social media sects like the release day of the annual Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland report – also known as GERS.

GERS

I want to make one thing clear up front. No serious commentator now suggests that GERS can be used as is as a projection of the finances of an independent Scotland. My 2016 paper “Beyond GERS” shows some of the changes that would need to be made for this to be the case. But as a set of accounts for Scotland, the region of the UK, I’m content to use GERS as it is. Maybe improvements can and should still be made, but this is true for all statistical publications and the team behind the report do the best they can within their remit.

So what does this year’s publication tell us about Scotland, the region? Continue reading

It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like GERSmas

A photo of the Scottish countryside. The sky is split between the moon and the night on the left and the sunset on the right.

It’s beginning to look a lot like GERSmas
It’s on the news, you know.
The size of the deficit, is all that matters to it
No deeper in shall the headlines go.

It’s beginning to look a lot like GERSmas
What will the numbers have in store?
To the rest of the UK, we compare ourselves today
It becomes a chore.

If a tax here is tweaked and everyone is freaked
imagine if they tried something more.
To reform all the land, make sure fracking stays banned
tax the rich till they’re sore.
But till we can then GERS we have and here it comes again.

It’s beginning to look a lot like GERSmas
Here, again, we go.
The fight about all the stats, the guesstimates and the facts
Where we stand I doubt we’ll ever know.

It’s beginning to look a lot like GERSmas
For calm, I shall now say.
Why don’t we have a truce, and not let Twitter run a loose
This GERSmas day….

Just this GERS-mas day.

Merry GERSmas everybody.

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We (Still) Need To Talk About: Budget Underspends

“Journalism is what we need to make democracy work.” – Walter Cronkite

It’s that time of year again. Amazingly, despite the looming catastrophe that is Brexit, this week has been one of those “slow news” weeks. Of the kind that manage to get pages out of very minor things like essentially reprinting old stories with the numbers slightly updated.

I am, of course, talking about the perennial “Scottish Government Underspend” story.

A screengrab of the Herald article on the budget underspend. Headline "SNP government budget underspend almost £500 million"

I covered this before back in the early days of this blog (it remains the most read article on here so far – even excluding the annual reposts). Others, like Wings Over Scotland, have covered it pretty much every year since.

Here’s the short version though.

  1. Opponents are complaining that the Scottish Government aren’t spending everything they’ve been given in the Block Grant or raised through taxes and are claiming that the Government are starving services of resources.
  2. This year the “underspend” is “almost £500 million” (actually, the article later says that it’s £453 million).
  3. But the Scottish Budget is pretty much fixed annually.
  4. And the Scottish Government has extremely limited borrowing powers for revenue – £600 million per year, £1.75 million maximum.
  5. If it DID try to use them, you can bet that the same opponents would be raging at the thought of the Scottish Government going into debt.
  6. The solution to avoid debt is to budget conservatively – if you had to set an ice-cream cone budget at the start of the year but your ice-cream purchases varied between 800 and 1,200 cones depending on weather – you’d need to budget for 1,200. If you only bought 800, then you’d have a 400 ice-cream cone underspend.

Without borrowing powers or an independent currency, budget underspends are an inevitable feature of the annual budget.

Though complicating the above point is that until 2006-07, Scottish Executive underspends were, in great part, retained by the UK Government. This was corrected after a negotiation between the UK Government and the then new SNP Scottish Government and the accumulated £1.5 billion was gradually fed into the budgets of the next several years.

An excerpt from an Audit Scotland report detailing the

Since then, underspend money gets carried over to next year’s budget (though, as that budget will have an underspend too it’s a bit of a moot point).

One thing often missed in the “Budget Underspend” headlines is the actual nature of the sum involved. It’s not all cash sitting in the bank. Some of it will be due to underspending due to less-than-projected spending items (like the ice-cream cone budget issue). Some of it will be due to projects coming in underbudget possibly due to good management, possibly due to currency or price fluctuations (if your ice-cream cones cost £1 in January but drop to £0.80 by June, you might underspend even if you still buy 1,200 cones).

But a good chunk of the underspend could be from things like depreciation of assets which can’t be spent on other things at all – even if the asset is sold (The metaphor gets a little strained here, but if your ice-cream cone is worth less as a half-eaten, melted pile than it was when you bought it fresh, it’s not as if you can sell the cone and pocket the difference in price).

Another thing often missing from these headlines is the inevitable revision afterwards – calculating National budgets down to the penny turns out to be quite tricky. If you remember last year’s headline that the government had underspent by £191 million, you probably missed the reporting that that figure was later revised down to only £85 million after final accounting adjustments were made.

Indeed, this year’s figures have ALREADY been revised downwards. Stripping out the non-cash items and money already budgeted for but not yet spent then it only leaves around £66 million to be spent on something else.

But £66 million is still a fair bit of money though isn’t it? Surely, the government could just, you know, budget better?

To answer that question we’d be best to do another thing that doesn’t really come across in reporting if one looks at the situation one headline at a time. Examine the trend.

To that end, I’ve spend a fair bit of time trawling through annual Consolidated Accounts to pull together the underspends from this and previous years. I managed to get back to the accounts for the year 2005-2006 before the trail gets fragmented. Before this point, the Scottish Executive accounts operated in a substantially different way (see the segment on Resource Accounting and Budgeting here). Underspends still happened, but comparing them like-for-like with years after 2004 may not be strictly fair. I also haven’t been able to locate the 2002-03 underspend at all.

As far as I can tell though and if the revision mentioned stands, this year’s underspend may well be the lowest since the start of devolution.

A bar chart of Scottish budget underspends since devolution. There is a clear trend downwards from the 2000-2001 high of £718 million down to the 2017-18 low of £66 million.

And if we compare the underspends to the budget as a whole we begin to see just how small a story this all becomes. The Scottish Government’s devolved budget is on the order of £32 billion. A £66 million underspend is about 0.21% of that budget – or about 18 hours worth of spending across the year.

The underspend bar chart converted to percentages of the total budget. From 4% in 2000-2001 to 0.21% in 2017-18

Even the initial estimate of £453 million was about 1.4% of  the total budget – if it really was all spendable cash, it’d be the equivalent of about five days worth of spending.

This is not to say that the budget underspend won’t become an issue. It was simplier back in the days when the bulk of the Scottish budget came from the block grant and tax powers were both limited and largely unused. Now, with divergent income tax rates and bands and an impossibly complex Fiscal Framework, there is a risk that the devolution settlement gets strained to breaking point. The David Hume institute has described it as an “interesting cocktail” of arrangements.

I don’t know what the future holds for this story. I could see a time, possibly as soon as next year, where the Scottish Government revenue budget slips from “underspend” to “overspend”. I already know what the reaction of the opponents will be if that happens.

I could hope that the media will up its game here and try to explain these issue in more detail than an attention grabbing headline.

Sadly, I can see my 2015 article just being reposted again in 2019.

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We Need To Talk About: The Growth Commission Report

If this is a discussion document – It’s time to start discussing it.

The Growth Commission’s long-awaited report is finally out and will surely take some time to fully digest. It has been described as a discussion document and a starting point for the revitalised case for independence; not the final word on SNP policy or national trajectory.

In many ways, the report covers ground now very familiar to campaigners in the independence debate. We’re all now quite familiar with the deep and systemic flaws of the UK’s economic system especially its regional inequality which, quite frankly, is embarrassing when compared to neighbouring countries in Europe.

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(Source: Eurostat)

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unDemocracy

“I think it would be a good idea” – Apocrypha attributed to M. Gandhi on his being asked what he thought of Western civilisation.

The UK Government’s handling of Brexit continues to be veer somewhere between being a shambles and a criminally negligent disaster.

From its position on customs which remains something like “We have no idea what we want and we’re damn sure we’re not going to lift a finger to plan for it.”

Through its tearing away from anything even remotely connected to the EU – including Euratom (which means good luck running a nuclear power plant or obtaining a medical radiological), the Gallileo satellite system (to which the British response was a petulant “We’ll build our own…somehow”) and fundamental human rights which protect us all from the whims of governments that act a bit like the current UK one does.

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