Comment Plus: pick of the papers

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

1. Breaking the electoral mould may not have a happy ending (Guardian)

The remarkable rise of the Lib Dems may not have a happy ending, writes Seumas Milne. It could lead to the elite stitch-up that is a national unity government.

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2. The Tories have a fortnight to save themselves from disaster (Daily Telegraph)

If David Cameron is not prime minister on or soon after May 7, the Tory party will turn on him, warns Benedict Brogan. To avoid this fate, Cameron must better explain to the public why a hung parliament would be a disaster.

3. Brown looks ever more like King Lear (Independent)

In tonight's debate the focus will be on Cameron and Clegg, but it is Brown who needs to give the performance of his life, says Steve Richards.Labour's shapeless campaign has led to an extraordinary shift against the party.

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4. A hung parliament would be a tragedy for Britain (Financial Times)

The uncertainty of a hung parliament would kill the economic recovery, warns Ken Clarke. A period of weak government would do nothing to improve the reputation of our political system.

5. The 'no win' nightmare (Sun)

Warming to the same theme, Trevor Kavanagh warns that a hung parliament would lead to economic disaster. Worse, by demanding Brown's head, Nick Clegg could leave the country with another unelected Labour prime minister.

6. Only the Lib Dems listen to Britain (Guardian)

But elsewhere, Nick Clegg says that only the Lib Dems can seize the opportunity for fundamental reform. Labour seems to have given up trying and the Tories only offer the illusion of change.

7. Our foreign aid target is absurd and outdated (Times)

The pledge by all three parties to raise aid spending to 0.7 per cent of GDP makes no sense, says Bronwen Maddox. It says nothing about how much aid the poorest really need and distracts attention away from the need for good government.

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8. 9½ vital questions for our would-be leaders on Britain's role in the world (Guardian)

With the one big exception of Europe, the foreign policy differences between the three parties are astonishingly small, writes Timothy Garton Ash. But all the leaders need to clarify what they think Britain's role in the world should be.

9. Let Letwin Be Letwin (Times)

Were Oliver Letwin to lose his seat to the Lib Dems he would be much missed, says a Times leader. It was he who provided the intellectual backbone to modern conservatism.

10. Fly less and we'll all be happier (Independent)

The next government must demonstrate how we can all fly less and stay competitive, says Peter Lockley.

 

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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.