Brian Wilson: Salmond inquiry begs further scrutiny
IF the quest is for impartiality, inviting this ex-civil servant to investigate Alex Salmond is rather strange, writes Brian Wilson
The melt-down of Alex Salmond’s proposed inquiry into himself is becoming almost as interesting an illustration of how his devolved administration operates as the original offence.
With the departure of Lord Fraser of Carmylie, now followed by Dame Elish Angiolini, there is only one member of the trio left standing, Sir David Bell, of whom, more later. The Lord and the Dame have sensibly concluded that they can do without being used as pawns in a high-profile charade at this stage in their public lives.
As last week’s events confirmed, Salmond’s utterances are becoming increasingly in need of semantic scrutiny. Indeed, listening to his attempts to explain away the Andrew Neil interview, I was reminded of Ron Ziegler, US president Richard Nixon’s press secretary during Watergate, who once offered the memorable defence: “I know that what you think you heard is not what I said”. Indeed.
So, for the avoidance of doubt, let us look back to the verbatim account of what Salmond told MSPs when he initiated an inquiry last Wednesday by referring “the matter to the independent panel of advisers on the ministerial code” – an august body made up of precisely two members, Lord Fraser and Dame Elish.
As was quickly pointed out, this was no more than a dodge since almost none of the criticism levelled at Salmond had anything to do with the ministerial code which does not cover television studios, briefings to the press or myriad other ways in which the illusion of legal advice having been received on EU membership was maintained over a period of months.
Salmond continued: “As this matter touches on an area of the code which relates to the law officers’ prerogative in terms of the existence or content of legal advice, and our two members of the panel are both distinguished Lords Advocates, I have – on the advice of the permanent secretary – invited Sir David Bell to join the independent panel of advisers”.
So, no doubt about it, this was announced as a three-member panel – the Lord, the Dame and Sir David. True, it was a characteristically over-portentous Salmond statement since there is no obvious reason why former Lords Advocate, now respectively an energy consultant and Principal of an Oxford college, should be thus constrained. But it gave cover for bringing in the third member as insurance.
Within 24 hours, however, Lord Fraser had been “stood down” by the Scottish Government’s Permanent Secretary, Sir Peter Housden, after venturing the view that the inquiry had to go far wider than the ministerial code. Having consulted with Lord Fraser, Dame Elish then reached the same conclusion. The words “touch” and “barge-pole” may have featured in their conversation.
So what happens now with this risible investigation into the question that Salmond has defined? In answer to inquiries yesterday, the Scottish Government – who are clearly in need of a Ron Ziegler figure among their 13 special advisers – confirmed that it will now be a one-person inquiry. And the one person is Sir David Bell . As Ron himself once put it: “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative”.
Now we come to the role of Sir Peter Housden, the permanent secretary, a figure whose reputation permanently hovers between a joke and a disgrace. Since arriving at Holyrood under one of the biggest financial clouds ever to follow a mandarin out of Whitehall, he has defined his role as deference to his new masters and identification with their political agenda.
So when Salmond solemnly announces that his “independent” investigation is to be led by an individual who has been “invited… on the advice of the permanent secretary”, it is time to start counting the spoons. Step forward, Sir David Bell in whose hands the fate of the nation may now lie. But who, you may ask, is Sir David Bell and did anyone in Scotland, other than Sir Peter and the First Minister, ever vote for him?
Sir David, we are pleased to note, is Glasgow-born and educated. A good start. At the earliest possible moment, however, he hot-footed it over the still-hypothetical border and built a jolly good career in England which, of course, Salmond and his acolytes wish to turn into a foreign country.
So why would a Scottish Nationalist administration go to a mandarin of the state from which they wish to secede for its expert advice?
Is there not a single former civil servant who committed his career to working in Scotland who was capable of carrying out this task? Is it conceivable that there is not an equally distinguished figure who has taken the trouble to live within Scotland in the course of the past 35 years who might have been better equipped to grasp the nuances of what he or she was being asked to investigate?
Indeed, is it not “talking Scotland down”, to coin a phrase, to suggest that no individual living and working within Scotland – either now or in the recent past – was capable of, and appropriate for, the task of investigating Mr Salmond, even within his own absurdly-limited terms of reference? The question is rhetorical. Of course such people exist. But could Salmond and Housden count on them as reliable – or might they go the way of Fraser and Angiolini?
So we must instead rely on the “advice” of Sir Peter Housden to bring in Sir David Bell, until recently a permanent secretary in Whitehall and now Vice-Chancellor of Reading University. (Clearly, no Vice-Chancellor of a Scottish University was up to the job either). Sir David is coyly described as a former Whitehall colleague of Sir Peter’s, which is a little bit like describing Laurel as “a former colleague in the acting profession” of Hardy.
As minimal research confirms, the careers of Housden and Bell have been intertwined for 30 years. They were both directors of education in England who made their way into the Civil Service. Bell was the head of the inspectorate, Ofsted, at the same time Housden was Director-General of Schools in England, both within the Department of Education. They shared innumerable platforms and worked together on a day and daily basis. They are, in short, best mates – hence the phone call.
And this is where the arrogance of untouchability comes in. If Salmond and Housden had wanted to demonstrate the independence of their inquiry, then Bell is the last man they would have gone to. Instead, he was the first. Now, he is the only.
And unlike Fraser and Angiolini, he must profess that an investigation restricted to “the ministerial code” is something he is prepared to lend his reputation to.
Or maybe not? Over to you, Sir David, whenever you can manage a trip north of Reading.
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