Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system (Independent)

Where selection remains, it continues to be largely the preserve of the privileged, writes Owen Jones.

2. IDS isn’t ending social security. He’s saving it (Times)

Critics of welfare reform are ignoring the evidence that today’s system is not just a mess but is immoral, says Tim Montgomerie. 

3. Syria: how many more times can the Foreign Office get it so wrong? (Daily Telegraph)

A total misreading of the situation in Syria is just the latest example of Whitehall blundering, says Peter Oborne. 

4. Consumption is not just for Christmas (Financial Times)

It is deeply patronising to fret that the little people are buying too much for their own good, writes Chris Giles. 

5. We can't rely on Angela Merkel to sort out Europe's problems (Guardian)

David Cameron hopes the German chancellor will help him keep Britain in the EU, but she's focused on her own country, writes Martin Kettle. 

6. If you’re Biggs, you believe that you’re big (Times)

From train robbers to slave owners, people tend to convince themselves that they’re acting morally, writes David Aaronovitch. 

7. Six events that shook Asia (Financial Times)

As one nation strives to revive its economy, others struggle with poverty and calamity, writes David Pilling. 

8. Mission accomplished? Afghanistan is a calamity and our leaders must be held to account (Guardian)

British troops haven't accomplished a single one of their missions in Afghanistan, says Seumas Milne. Like Iraq and Libya, it's a disaster.

9. This government is a hotbed of cold feet (Daily Telegraph)

Every time ministers funk or farm out difficult decisions, they lose more authority, says Sue Cameron.

10. The 'right school'? No, parents staying together is the best way to help children (Guardian)

Children with a stable home life do better at school. Focus less on catchment areas and more on relationship counselling, writes Joanna Moorhead. 

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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