Debt – the first move (published in the Scottish Sun 15/1/2014)

The UK Government has just announced that it will honour its debts. It has done so since before Charles II lost his head, so why did it need to make this announcement? Because it claims that those who lend money to the UK are asking questions about how the debt will be shared if Scotland becomes independent. So far, the UK government has refused to say what it might do after independence. But these concerns have forced it to show its hand. The UK government depends on the money markets to keep our schools open, to pay for pensions and to keep the health service running. Just now it can borrow at very low interest rates. Upset the markets and these rates would rise. The extra costs would have to be paid from higher taxes, or from cuts in public services.

Why the concern about Scottish independence? Because the UK expects that an independent Scotland would become responsible for a share of UK debt. If it was shared equally across all of the UK population, Scotland’s interest charges on the debt would be around £4bn. This is equal to double the total amount of council tax raised in Scotland. Some argue that this is the only fair way to share the debt: the SNP argues that Scotland’s share should be reduced because of the money that North Sea oil has made for the UK.

Uncertainty about the way the debt might be divided will make investors nervous. They will be less willing to lend to the UK. This would push up interest rates. To keep investors happy the UK Government has removed the uncertainty by agreeing to repay all debt issued before the independence referendum. It expects to agree with the Scottish Government that it will pay its share of the debt charges. But, if there is a Yes vote, the Scottish Government can choose not to pay.

A threat not to pay might be part of a strategy to get a good deal when the split takes place. There will certainly be a lot to argue over: the currency, Trident, energy, borders and so on. It will take some time to reach a deal.

But there is a danger in threatening not to take on a share of the debt. One of the first actions of an independent Scotland will be to go to the markets to raise cash. It will also want to keep interest charges as low as possible. For this, it will need a good credit rating. And the markets might be wary of a borrower that would not take a share of UK debt.

About David Bell

David Bell FRSE is Professor of Economics at the University of Stirling. He graduated in economics and statistics at the University of Aberdeen and in econometrics at the London School of Economics. He has worked at the Universities of St Andrews, Strathclyde, Warwick and Glasgow. His research is mainly in labour economics, fiscal decentralization and the economics of long-term care. He has been budget adviser to the Scottish Parliament Finance Committee. He is PI for the Healthy AGing In Scotland project (HAGIS).
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