Scotland

Daily question: How might the UK’s debt be divided post-Yes?

As the people of Scotland weigh up how to vote in the independence referendum, they are asking questions on a range of topics from the economy to welfare.

In this series, we are looking at those major questions and by using statistics, analysis and expert views shining a light on some of the possible answers.

Here, we focus on the issue of the UK debt and the debate about what might happen to it if there was a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum.

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BBC website user John Findley asks: "If Scotland breaks from England, will it also take a portion of the national debt with it?" Bob Phipps, R Russell and Harvey Manning also ask about what might happen to the debt share.


How does the issue of UK debt fit into this debate?

Image copyright SPL

If Scotland votes for independence, the level of debt it inherits from the rest of the UK would be one of the points that would need to be agreed by both governments. The UK currently has about £1.4 trillion of debt.

The Scottish government has suggested it will only take on a share of UK debt if it is allowed to share the pound.

The three Westminster political parties made a joint announcement that Scotland would not be allowed to share the pound after independence. However, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, stated that if that was the case, then Scotland wouldn't take any of the UK's debt.

But the reality is that the Scottish government do want to share both the pound and the debt.


So, how much debt would Scotland take?

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There is actually broad agreement between both sides that if the debt is to be shared then Scotland should take about 8% to 9% of the total debt as it has 8 to 9% of the UK's population.

Although the Scottish government also mentions a lower figure, based on a historical share of the debt, most discussions use a per capita share as the starting point.

So, Scotland could start life as an independent country with a debt of £126bn, meaning interest payments of £5.5bn a year. That's equivalent to 72% of Scottish GDP according to the Scottish government's independent Fiscal Working Group.

This would be slightly lower than the equivalent UK figure of 77%. The Scottish government is happy with this level of debt, as long as Scotland is able to remain in a sterling currency union.


What impact will the debt level have?

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Media captionDanny Alexander says an independent Scotland would still be expected to pay its "fair share"

The level of debt a country takes on affects how much it has to pay to borrow. New countries tend to be seen as a riskier investment, and a new country starting life with a large chunk of debt could be viewed as an even more risky investment.

That is likely to mean that Scotland would have to pay a higher rate of interest to borrow money on the international markets. Mike Amey of Pimco - the world's biggest investor in government bonds, has said "Our best estimate, assuming a reasonably even split of assets and liabilities, would be the interest rate [paid by the Scottish government] would be between 0.5% and 1% more than the UK government currently pays."

The current UK debt is owed to people and institutions all over the world, and in January the Treasury reassured all those borrowers that they didn't need to panic.

If an independent Scotland took on a chunk of that debt, it would still be backed up by the UK government. Essentially the UK government would keep paying back all the debt that exists at the moment, and the Scottish government would owe the UK a portion of it.

Some have doubted this tactic, saying that if Scotland refused to take on any or some of the debt, the UK would still cover it.

However, in reality the Treasury had no choice. Whatever happens in Scotland there is an obligation on the National Loans Fund to pay back all the money they has been borrowed and if it doesn't, that will affect the UK's credit rating and the amount it pays to borrow in the future.


So, could Scotland walk away from UK debt?

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Well, technically yes. It would certainly throw a spanner in the works of any negotiations with the UK, which might be a card its wants to play.

But it would have a big impact. As the Scottish government says in its White Paper, it would accept a level of debt repayment.

To refuse to take on the debt could be seen as a signal of a bad credit history, and that would make investors less willing to lend, making it more expensive for Scotland to borrow.


Why does all this affect me?

Image copyright PA

Because you might have to pay more in tax or have services cut to fund the Scottish government's borrowing. And it could have an impact if Scotland is keen to borrow money to fund more capital investment projects.

Scotland's Finance Secretary John Swinney says he favours more borrowing, rather than the UK government's austerity approach, and his spending plans could cost £2.5bn in 2018/19.

To borrow that money, an independent Scotland would need to go straight to the money markets.

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