Thank goodness for an impartial Civil Service. It is the bedrock of Britain’s triumph over uncertainty and strife. If it wasn’t impartial, why we might be misled into believing something to be true when in a real sense it wasn’t.
And in the time-honoured tradition of neutral, non-political administration, confidential advice to ministers is kept confidential, otherwise Civil Servants might feel unable to give direct, honest advice, if they thought it would be published. Well today it was…and by extraordinary coincidence, the advice from Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Permanent Secretary at the Treasury (salary £175,000 – to ensure neutrality) chimed exactly with the political statement of the Chancellor. Isn’t impartiality a wonderful thing?
How pleased Sir Humphrey would be to find that, even from beyond the grave, the fine traditions of British administration were being upheld. Hurrah! But if you were one of those antsi politico types who doesn’t believe what the Establishment says – say over flood defence spending or maybe the Iraq war – you might deduce that Sir Nicholas was stepping outside the normal protocols in order to add his (totally impartial) voice to his political master’s assertions on the currency. If that was what you thought, then you might expect to hear objections to the publication of Sir Nicholas’s advice from people deeply concerned that political neutrality is preserved in the Civil Service.
For example Alistair Darling is dead keen to see Civil Servants remain neutral, so much so that in January he said in the Commons: “The entire effort of the Scottish Government is now being directed towards the referendum. I just do not have the confidence that the permanent secretary … is going to have any control over the SNP at all.”
The Permanent Secretary is Sir Peter Housden. In the Guardian this week, Darling said again: “They’re getting away with stuff – we’d have been stopped in our tracks by the civil service. He is very fortunate in his permanent secretary: he’s incredibly accommodating.”
So a man who knows the role of Civil Servants is falling over himself to discredit a Permanent Secretary in the Scottish government who is doing his job at the politician’s bidding but when it comes to a British government Permanent Secretary changing the rules to make advice public in a political cause Alistair is…totally silent. Why?
And remember Brian Wilson, Donald Dewar’s propagandist then Blair’s rebuttal unit supremo? He wrote: “And that brings me to Sir Peter Housden, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government and widely regarded as a wholly-owned Salmond subsidiary. Sir Peter’s eagerness to please ministers is well-known, but he needs to be reminded of his duty of care to fellow civil servants.”
Do we expect Sir Nicholas to be shortly in receipt of a stern missive from the Hebrides reminding him of his duty of impartiality? Or is there just a chance that these two Establishment jobsworths are hypocrites who say whatever suits them?
The tawdry aspect to this is that both Darling and Wilson know how it works and have relied on Civil Servants all their careers and had their backside saved by them. But there is no gratitude. As with the independence-minded Scots today, if you disagree with the rightful sages of the British state, you are tarred, feathered and left to swing. Alistair, as I keep finding myself saying, is turning into an unhinged obsessive. I thought I was bad. I used to sympathise with him over his treatment by Gordon Brown’s manic munchkins but when you see him in full hateful, frothing flow, you begin to wonder…
And it seems to me that the very objections Sir Nicholas laid out are the very reason we have Civil Servants, to solve technical issues and make things work. Simply producing a list of stuff that will have to be resolved isn’t administering, it’s what secretaries do. His job is to make it happen and what he is making happen today is a No vote in Scotland in September.
Anyway, to the real matter at hand and I’m afraid I don’t buy the SNP response to this coup de foudre (it’s a burgundy night). You simply can’t go into studios and have no answer to the Plan B question. You don’t want to follow the narrative they have set but the trick surely is to recognize you’ve had a frappe and neutralize it. The answer has to be along the lines of: “We are astonished that the UK puts politics ahead of economic recovery and good governance and seems to be telling Scots they have put nothing into this Union so deserve nothing out. We have to take at face value what we are told, although frankly is it is a suicidal position given the UK’s finances and balance of payments. We will consider alternative currency arrangements but be in no doubt, if the assets of the Bank of England are to be withheld, then Scotland will reserve the right to leave the national debt where it belongs –totally in the hands of those who run it up – the British government.”
The longer you wait before accepting the inevitable, the less credible you become. There is nothing wrong with a wobble, so long as you don’t fall off the plate. Just as Salmond got over the rejection of a second question, so with this. He has to explain that Britain, including the once-Scottish Labour Party have barred Scots from using the institutions they have regarded as shared under the Union and will now strike out and claim the higher wealth future and better GDP we have and begin independence debt-free. “We tried. We offered to help the UK with its balance of payments, to keep cross-border trade transaction free, to maintain the sterling link with the people of England and to pay a share of the debt as a token of goodwill but we have been unanimously rejected. So be it.”