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. 

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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.