Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. From Washington this looks like Syria's 'Benghazi moment'. But not from here (Independent)

Robert Fisk discusses the situation in Syria: Look east and what does Bashar see? Iran standing with him and Iraq refusing to impose sanctions.

2. Syria between two massacres: Hama's memory endures (Guardian)

As Syrians find their voice to mark the 1982 massacre, says Wadah Khanfar, their resolve to overthrow this brutal regime is clear.

3. Great expectations? No. Hard times? Yes. Enter Miliband Snr (Daily Telegraph)

The former foreign secretary's blueprint to help a lost generation must be taken seriously, says Mary Riddell.

4. Is Lansley the exception to the no-sacking policy? (Times) (£)

The botched NHS reforms could destroy the Tories at the next election. What they need is a new health secretary, says Rachel Sylvester.

5. The way to cut bonuses: scrap public subsidies for banks (Financial Times)

The public interest in bankers' bonuses lies in the fact that taxpayers underwrite them, says Philip Stephens.

6. The right's stupidity spreads, enabled by a too-polite left (Guardian)

Conservativism may be the refuge of the dim, says George Monbiot. But the room for rightwing ideas is made by those too timid to properly object.

7. All is revealed in Gingrich's fantasy fiction (Times) (£)

The Republican contender is a novelist -- who knew? But, Ben Macintyre explains, his stories are less 'what if' history than 'so what' history.

8. The ice is cracking under Putin (Financial Times)

While nobody is talking of a Moscow spring, there is a definite thaw, says Gideon Rachman.

9. If India doesn't want it, why are we still giving them money? (Independent)

David Cameron's decision to maintain our overseas aid budget was intensely political, says Dominic Lawson.

10. Derailing Bonuses (Times) (£)

Network Rail executives have bowed to public pressure over bonuses. This highlights the need to sort out its status, says this leading article.

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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.