CommentPlus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. An assault on unions is an attack on democracy itself (Guardian)

The Conservatives' attempt to smear the trade unions is an absurd attempt to turn the current crisis of corporate legitimacy into a crisis of union legitimacy, argues Seumas Milne.

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2. Unite doesn't run Labour -- it can't even run itself (Independent)

Meanwhile, the Independent's Steve Richards says the belief that Unite has seized control of the Labour Party ignores the truth: that this is a union which rarely speaks or acts with one voice.

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3. Stand by, and watch 1992 happen all over again (Times)

Next week's Budget is as much a test for the Tories as one for the government, writes Anatole Kaletsky. If David Cameron and George Osborne misjudge their response, they could scupper their chances in the same way as Neil Kinnock and John Smith destroyed Labour's in 1992.

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4. The buccaneering spirit will prevail (Daily Telegraph)

Cameron's fighting performance this week has put Labour on the back foot again, writes Benedict Brogan. A free-flowing campaign focused on the party leaders could prove Gordon Brown's undoing.

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5. This Lib Dem myth (Guardian)

The belief that left-leaning voters will feel happier in the Liberal Democrats ignores the party's rightward shift, argues Tim Horton. Nick Clegg's tax plans would give more to the affluent middle classes than to the poorest.

6. Obama won't restrain Israel -- he can't (Independent)

Given the strength of the Israel lobby and Washington's strategic relationship with Tel Aviv, Barack Obama has no hope of preventing Binyamin Netanyahu's illegal settlement expansion, says Rupert Cornwell.

7. Poverty blights the dream of Hong Kong (Financial Times)

The territory's tradition of small government and belief in the free market has left it with the worst income inequality in Asia, writes David Pilling.

8. Why do the Tories want to be the heirs to Blair? (Daily Mail)

The Tories will not succeed by trying to ape Tony Blair, writes Stephen Glover. The public no longer shares their infatuation with the former prime minister.

9. Needed: a peaceful anti-Netanyahu uprising (Times)

Malcolm Rifkind argues that Israel needs a peaceful, democratic revolution to re-create a government with a genuine commitment to a two-state solution.

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10. A messiah can't do it. To reshape the world, the US must first reform itself (Guardian)

The biggest problem for American foreign policy is a conservative Congress, writes Timothy Garton Ash. If Obama's foreign policy is to prove effective, he must reform political finance and curb the lobbyists.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.