Two headlines caught my eye yesterday.
In The National (strapline – ‘The newspaper that supports an independent Scotland’)
Untenable: Calls for top civil servant Sir Nicholas Macpherson to resign over referendum letter
and in the Press and Journal (print version)
Salmond calls for Treasury official to resign post.
That was a news item. The (Aberdeen) P & J is my local paper and every Monday also gives Alex Salmond free rein to express his views on, well, anything: this of course in the run-up to a Westminster election in which he is a local candidate. There’s usually a scattering of couthy stuff about his mum or the latest eclipse. But his main theme is always political, exemplified yesterday by the printed headline
Report should mean curtains for Sir Nic [online version here].
So three headlines on the same subject.
The report referred to was the House of Commons Public Administration Committee’s investigation into Lessons for Civil Service impartiality from the Scottish independence referendum. Sir Nicholas Macpherson is the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury and had published, or caused to be published, his advice to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that for the United Kingdom,
a currency union with an independent Scotland would be “fraught with difficulty”.
The point is that such advice has been, until now, invariably confidential. It can be used by ministers to formulate a political case but they have to do that themselves.
The select committee report is a thorough examination of what happened and is unequivocal in its conclusion that
The advice should not have been published. Its publication compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK’s most senior civil servants.
They do not call for Macpherson’s resignation but that of course is a prerogative Alex Salmond and the media can exercise if they wish.
So far so clear.
But hold on. Unmentioned by The National and Salmond is a second issue examined by the committee, the involvement by civil servants in producing the Scottish government’s proposals in their white paper for independence, Scotland’s Future. And here the committee’s judgement is equally clear
Parts of the White Paper should not have been included in a Government publication. Civil servants should always advise against the appearance of partisan bias in Government documents—and they should not be required to carry out ministers’ wishes, if they are being asked to use public funds to promote the agenda of a political party, as was evident in this case.
In the way of these things, the main body of the select committee report is structured by numbered paragraphs, 89 in this case:
- 7 provide an introduction
- 17 describe general issues around a unified civil service with devolved government
- 48 set out lessons from the independence referendum. Of these, 15 plus a page long diagram deal with the involvement of civil servants in producing Scotland’s Future and 12 deal with Sir Nicholas Macpherson
- 6 deal with the subject of guiding the civil service through a referendum in future
- 11 deal with a separate issue about special advisers unrelated to the referendum.
A separate chapter summarises the committee’s conclusions and recommendations and the report ends with various appendices.
The reason I plod through this detail should be clear.
This is a lengthy and serious report about a range of issues that arose during the independence referendum. The Macpherson issue is just one part of it. But it is the only aspect mentioned by ex-leader of the SNP Alex Salmond and the separatists’ in-house journal The National. On everything else – not a word.
I understand that the permanent secretary to the Treasury should not have released his private advice to the government. I also understand after reading this report that Scottish government civil servants crossed a red line in at least some of their contribution to Scotland’s Future.
Alex Salmond’s view is not as balanced. As to why, perhaps his referendum diary (I’ve sneaked a free look in a bookshop, I’m certainly not going to buy it) contains a clue. Here are columnist Chris Deerin’s quotes from Salmond on Macpherson in his review of the diary (remember, this was before publication of the select committee report)
Sir Nicholas Macpherson, the widely respected permanent secretary of the Treasury, who has worked with three chancellors and is the longest-serving senior mandarin in Whitehall, ‘radiated hostility’ towards independence during the campaign. This, according to Mr Salmond, was because of his ‘family’s extensive land interests in Scotland’. Sir Nicholas ‘wallowed’ in his sudden ‘politicisation’, was prone to ‘pernicious rants’ and should ‘give up the pretence of being a civil servant’.
It does rather look as if Salmond has a bit of a bee in his bonnet about Macpherson.
Deerin goes on to remind us, which Salmond doesn’t of course, that
a charge of pro-Nat bias has been leveled at Sir Peter Housden, permanent secretary of the Scottish Government, while Mr Salmond has been accused of wider politicisation of the Scottish civil service.
Like my father in his old age, our ex-first minister is a past master at selective deafness. But then it all contributes to the ‘Westmonster’ narrative so critical to the myths that nationalism rests on.
A final thought. Both the issues the select committee report highlights about the referendum could in principle have been investigated by a Holyrood committee, especially the involvement of the government’s own civil servants in the production of Scotland’s Future. But as far as I’m aware there hasn’t been a whisper of interest in doing so. I wonder why that is?
Score: Westminter select committee system 1: Holyrood system 0.