Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. The latest front in Operation Divide and Rule sees soldiers being used to fight a political battle (Independent)

The idea that soldiers are somehow independent of the welfare state – and thus immune to attacks on it – is bunk, and Philip Hammond knows it, says Owen Jones.

2. Cameron must find some TLC for the right (Times

The Prime Minister’s neglect of his traditional supporters opened the door for UKIP, writes Tim Montgomerie. Now he has to woo them back.

3. With a broken promise, the government has handed the NHS over to the market (Guardian)

Reassurances on clinicians and local people controlling how services are commissioned look likely to be overturned, writes Clive Peedell. 

4. This cap on bankers’ bonuses is like a dead cat – pure distraction (Daily Telegraph)

EU autocrats think that by blaming the City of London, they have an entire continent fooled, writes Boris Johnson. 

5. Alawite history reveals the complexities of Syria that the west does not understand (Independent)

The maps long favoured in the west partition off Arab countries into ethnic divisions, but all these make clear is our own ignorance, says Robert Fisk.

6. A taste for mutually assured destruction (Financial Times)

US sequestration looks likely only to entrench the partisanship it was supposed to circumvent, writes Edward Luce.

7. No mainstream party in England truly understands conservatism (Guardian)

In Eastleigh and beyond, millions of voters who loathe the establishment tendency to piety are without a voice, says John Harris.

8. Rise of fruitcakes shows voters hate cynical Cam & Co (Sun)

For too many of our politicians, getting elected and running the country is the ultimate career move, not a passionate calling, says Tom Newton Dunn. 

9. I know where the political common ground is, Dave. The question is: do you? (Daily Mail)

The Prime Minister's lurching from one wing to the other doesn’t inspire much confidence that there’s any substance behind his promises, writes Melanie Phillips. 

10. Secret courts: The Liberal Democrats' duty (Guardian)

Should they shrink from at the very least amending the bill, the Lib Dems will reveal that they are neither liberal nor democratic, says a Guardian editorial.

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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.