Osborne viewed from Scotland

George Osborne Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Chancellor claimed "fairness" in his handling of the economy

Whether or not he's to blame for his rotten economic hand, George Osborne didn't play it badly with his wintry Autumn Statement. Not as calamitously, anyway, as his Budget earlier this year.

The weakest element was any claim to fairness. By the Treasury's own figures, there was a clear squeeze on the bottom half of the earnings heap.

Only the top tenth are losing a bigger proportion when changes to next year's taxes and benefits are brought together.

But on the basis that growth has to come from business, there was quite a bit to cheer in the boardroom and on the shopfloor.

The Chancellor's foot came off the fuel duty accelerator (no mention of what this does for the Greenest Ever Government). Corporation tax was taken down to 21% of profits from 2014. It's now at 24%.

And capital allowances investment in plant and equipment by small and medium-scale firms was pushed up ten-fold to £250,000.

So all that's needed to get cracking with growth is some demand, allied to a lot more confidence. And with a fiscally neutral budget - giving with one hand and taking the same amount from elsewhere with the other - government's role in stimulating demand through the downturn is still making a loud sucking noise.

Capital boost

How does this affect Scotland? Holyrood comes off relatively well.

The paring of Whitehall's departmental budgets didn't affect the big devolved budgets of health and education as much as others, so the consequential effect through the Barnet Formula was a relatively muted cut of an additional 0.2% next year and a further 0.4% the year after.

Finance Secretary John Swinney can decide how he spends the extra capital allocation to the block grant, though in the unlikely event that he wanted to take the extra £394m into current or revenue spending on services, he wouldn't be allowed to.

That means that he'll have to find around £64m more cuts to services over those three years as a result of today's statement.

The cut in corporation tax complicates one of the main planks of the case for Scottish independence. The SNP wants to cut business tax to make investment and location in Scotland more attractive than the remainder of the UK.

But it was a policy formed when UK corporation tax was above 30%, and the relative appeal of Ireland's 12.5% was compelling for companies with mobility.

That differential is now being eroded. The SNP has been using illustrative figures based on a cut to 20% corporation tax, which is hardly worth considering a move of operations from England to Scotland.

With the prospect of being allowed to follow Ireland down to 12.5% unlikely to win approval from European partners, the Nationalist answer is likely to be more about targeted tax cuts to firms and sectors that an independent Scotland could choose to prioritise.

But the impact of the argument is being eroded by which cut from the Treasury.

Dash for gas

The independence debate is also paying close attention to new Treasury data about offshore oil and gas.

The new strategy for gas - focussed on improving storage capacity, encouraging utilities to build gas-fuelled power stations and opening up unconventional reservoirs through fracking and coalbed methane - is more relevant to England and Wales, for now at least.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The North Sea industry is liable to throw up uncertainties

But on the more conventional form of extraction, the latest assessment of Treasury revenue from the so-called UK Continental Shelf came to a bumper £11.3bn last financial year.

This year, despite an assumption that the oil price continues to average around $112 per barrel, the fall in production means a cut in tax take to £7.3bn.

Assuming the oil price than falls in each of the next five years to $92 per barrel, the tax revenue falls through £6.7bn and on to £4.4bn in 2017-18.

This reflects investment patterns, the rate of production decline and, above all, a guess at prices, which is notoriously hard to do.

Drilling bit

The oil and gas industry has to live with that uncertainty all the time. But of course, this is of a lot of interest and relevance to the debate about independence, in which calculations of Scotland's financial position have a lot to do with a claim of at least 90% of the UK's subsea reserves.

If the OBR is any guide, it suggests Scotland's public sector deficit is going to look healthy for 2011-12.

But leaving aside other spending and tax changes, the fall in offshore revenue for subsequent years will mean the deficit grows quite rapidly in subsequent years.

OBR isn't the only guide though. Supporters of independence are pointing today towards a new analysis from Professor Alex Kemp's team at Aberdeen University which underlines the multiple billions of barrels still available to drillers.

However, the academic conclusion is that, assuming a $90 oil price, production "could increase over the next few years, and thereafter decline at a fairly brisk pace".

Recently announced tax breaks for expensive fields are having an impact, but it will take more fiscal effort to encourage drilling and to retain the value in old equipment being kept in service.

With that effort, Prof Kemp is looking to 16bn to 20bn more barrels coming out of UK waters in the next 30 years. The frequently quoted 24bn barrel potential is at the top end of what's deemed possible.

And to get anywhere close to it looks like requiring a big sacrifice to the tax take by either London's or, perhaps in future, Edinburgh's treasury.

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