November 25 News Digest

The Autumn Statement made by the Chancellor has been the main focus of UK politics this week – drawing ire from opposition parties as revealing a “Brexit bombshell” of slower economic growth, higher borrowing and higher debt – but with a series of interesting announcements impacting on Scotland.


Claiming to be putting the UK Government’s focus on “high value investment”, Philip Hammond announced a new £23bn National Productivity Investment Fund for innovation and infrastructure – of which Scotland can expect to see £800m – as well as additional funding for research and development.   While this investment has not gone far enough to satisfy opposition demands, Alan Shipman, writing in the Conversation, argues that Mr Hammond “has borrowed some dance steps from former shadow chancellor Ed Balls” – and that the decision to postpone attempts to reach a budget surplus until the next Parliament, along with the shift to investment in the hope of boosting growth – represent a shift towards the economic policy advocated by the star of Strictly Come Dancing.


Arguably the most interesting announcement in the Autumn Statement for Scots was that of a City Deal for Stirling, alongside commitments to a similar deal for Edinburgh and a ‘Tayside deal’ for Perth and Dundee – meaning every city in Scotland now has a city deal of some kind.   Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell has since called on the Scottish Government to commit to devolving more powers over transport and health to cities.


Looming behind the Chancellor throughout the statement was the spectre of Britain’s imminent departure from the EU – with the fallout from the referendum leading him to revise growth estimates by 2020 at 2.4 per cent lower than previously and borrowing at £122bn higher than previously thought.   This, writes the Economist, is just a hint of “how painful Brexit is going to be.”


Beyond the Autumn Statement, Brexit continues to make the headlines – with Theresa May facing criticism from leaders of devolved administrations for her failure to attend today’s British-Irish Council in Cardiff, which saw the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish issue a joint call for access to the single-market post-Brexit.   Also at the summit, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon held separate bilateral talks with Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny.


On the continent, and in a move that will no doubt have a huge impact on Brexit negotiations going forward, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that she will seek another term in office at the federal elections next year.  Her announcement has seen a mixed reaction – with the Economist arguing that a fourth term would protect her centrist legacy, while Anna Lehmann writing in the Guardian claims that Ms Merkel’s “time is up” and that the CDU and Germany as a whole must “emancipate themselves from Mutti”.


Across the border in France, the next Presidential election campaign is now well underway. Across Europe there are concerns  over a potential far-right victory next year– and the last week has saw former President Nicolas Sarkozy fail in his bid to re-enter the Elysee Palace, finishing third in the Republican primary and falling out of the race, which enters a run-off between Francois Fillon and Alain Juppe.  Mr Fillon won the first round of the vote with 44 per cent and is the favourite to win the run-off this weekend – but he has faced questions over whether he has the ability to win a general election.   Elsewhere, it has been argued that Mr Fillon’s likely victory in the primary reduces the chances of Marine le Pen winning the Presidency in 2017.


While welfare was high on the agenda at Westminster in the run-up to the autumn statement, there has also been significant movement on the social security front at Holyrood this week, with the Scottish Government winning its battle with the DWP to ensure it has the power to exempt people taking part in voluntary work programmes from sanctions – welcomed by Employment Minister Jamie Hepburn as a “great relief to individuals who have had to cope with this unnecessary stress and harm in the past”.


However, it hasn’t been uniformly positive news for the Scottish Government as the row over train services has rumbled on – leading to a new debate over the potential for a publicly-run franchise after Transport Minister Humza Yousaf’s invite to opposition parties to work with him in developing such a proposal.  Writing in the Herald this week, the University of Glasgow’s Professor Iain Docherty called for an end to politicking, which he argues is damaging Scotland’s rail services.


Meanwhile, the fallout from the U.S. Presidential election continues – with repercussions being felt on this side of the Atlantic.  As Donald Trump names his first candidates to serve in his own government, with Nikki Haley and Betsy DeVos set to serve as UN Ambassador and Secretary of Education respectively, he has also offered Theresa May some unsolicited advice on her own appointments.


Shirking the usual diplomatic niceties for what may not be the last time during his term, the incoming President suggested that Nigel Farage would make a “great” UK ambassador to the USA – a suggestion which Alex Massie writing in Foreign Policy argues will put stress on the ‘special relationship’ .