It is improper for civil servants to be used to churn out Nationalist propaganda and pronouncements, writes Brian Wilson
Cry freedom! According to the headline on the latest press release from John Swinney, “an independent Scotland could provide greater protection against cold-callers”. Precisely how this glorious transformation might occur was not elaborated upon.
Very few of the unwanted calls I receive – mostly offering to obtain money from banks or sell me financial products – are delivered in accents which suggest they are being made from Scotland and the companies which commission them tend to be located in other parts of the UK.
So how Mr Swinney intends to block calls from what would, by then, be a foreign state remains a mystery to be resolved, along with myriad others. It seems improbable that the necessary precondition for this outcome, however desirable, would be the ending of a 300-year-old Union.
But the more interesting point about the absurd Swinney press release was that it emanated from the Scottish Government’s media machine and was spun to Scotland’s journalists by politically-appointed special advisers, before being rubber-stamped as Scottish Government business through the press office.
On any reading, this was pure party politics which did not deal with any matter for which the Scottish Government has responsibilities. But that no longer acts as an inhibition to the churning out of Nationalist propaganda and pronouncements using civil servants as the messengers.
There was another example yesterday when the Scottish Government website solemnly announced: “An Independent Scotland Would Better Serve Households and Business”. It would be entirely proper for the SNP to make such a claim just as it is entirely improper for civil servants to be used for the same purpose. “Good News From North Korea” begins to sound objective by comparison with what is now routinely disseminated by St Andrew’s House.
The place has gone mad when the Scottish civil service is being used to formulate and communicate hypothetical policies to be pursued by a hypothetical government in a hypothetical state. But the politicisation process is now so advanced that even the most flagrant abuses pass without comment – least of all from those entrusted with defending the integrity of civil servants.
It all seems an incredibly far cry from my days as a minister in the Scottish Office when the delineation between government statements and party propaganda was rigidly enforced and a tension existed between politicians and the civil service, particularly the press office.
But it was a necessary tension as any politician with respect for his or her officials and the democratic process recognised. It is the politician’s entitlement to put an interpretation on facts – not to pressurise civil servants into acting as mouthpieces for propagandist purposes. That’s the distinction which no longer exists in Edinburgh.
The philosophical objective of Nationalist movements is to equate the party with the state and that is exactly what is being allowed to happen in Scotland at present. The SNP are using the machinery of government not only to communicate their actions and objectives at the present time – which is legitimate – but to write a party political agenda for the Scotland they intend to preside over following the referendum.
When it suits their purpose, they will soft-soap the electorate – and particularly the more gullible on the left – by telling them that all bets will be off after independence has been won, the SNP’s role will disappear and it will be up to the Scottish people to elect a government which will decide what policies it wishes to pursue.
But how does that equate with the current enunciation of policies – on everything from the monarchy to cold-calling – which refer to a post-referendum scenario and the way in which Scotland is to be governed thereafter? That agenda is not the business of the current Scottish Government but is merely a party political manifesto which only becomes relevant if and when there is a context within which to promote it.
The central figure in the breakdown of civil service practice is Sir Peter Housden, permanent secretary to the Scottish Government. At this point, we hear the ritual plea that it is unfair to attack a civil servant since he cannot answer back. But why can’t he?
Sir Peter has presided over the abrogation of plenty other rules which used to govern civil service behaviour, so why not that one? Many people would be very interested to hear how he interprets his role – and whether there is any point on which he would ever dare inconvenience his master?
At some point, it may even dawn on Sir Peter that he is not just being used and abused but is actually being made a fool of. A case study in this respect lies in the use made by the SNP (in the person of special advisers) of the letter Sir Peter wrote to the chief executive of Aberdeen City Council in response to complaints about the behaviour of Alex Salmond during the Donside by-election campaign.
This letter was widely “spun” as having “cleared” Salmond of the charges against him – the principal among which was that he had entered a primary school without the permission of either the head teacher or the education authority, using a fire exit to cover his behaviour. It does seem unfortunate that the media which reported this supposed exoneration by Sir Peter apparently did not see the letter in question.
In fact, not even Sir Peter could muster a defence of the clearest possible breach of rules introduced in the wake of the Dunblane massacre an from whdich nobody, repeat nobody, is immune. Instead, he merely referred to “the facts and background” as set out by the First Minister in his own abusive letter to the council.
So there was no exoneration – merely a form of words that avoided dealing with Aberdeen’s entirely legitimate complaint. Once again, it would be hugely welcome if Sir Peter would clarify his position. When Salmond’s special advisers briefed the media that the Permanent Secretary had “cleared” him over the school episode, were they telling the truth? And if not, was Sir Peter happy to be misrepresented?
These are central questions in the way Scotland is going to run over the next year and far beyond that, irrespective of how the referendum works out. It is time we stopped dancing round them.