THANKS in part to the fact that the London media has (understandably) not yet focused on the independence referendum, a revolution in Whitehall on the subject of Scotland has gone largely unnoticed in these last few months. Speak to civil servants in London and their counterparts in Edinburgh and there is growing agreement that, behind the economy, Scotland has leapt to the top of the UK government’s priority list.
The upping of the gears was heralded late last year when Whitehall’s most senior civil servant Sir Gus O’Donnell marked his retirement by identifying the coming referendum as one of the biggest issues facing the government machine.
Since then, the pace has quickened. Each government department at Whitehall has been told to swot up on the subject, with co-ordination being led by the Cabinet Office. In Downing Street, advisers tasked with Scotland can be heard claiming the Whitehall machine is now at their disposal.
They also insist that the PM and his team are gripped by Scotland (although the clumsy recent intervention by Iain Duncan Smith on welfare shows there is still some way to go on getting the politics right).
At the other end of the telescope in Edinburgh, the difference has been noted – with Scottish civil servants recognising that the quality of staff they are now dealing with down south has improved.
The agreement earlier this year over the passing of the Scotland Act, which will hand more powers to Holyrood, is being seen as the first fruits of this smoother relationship. The view among the mandarins is that this deal was crucial in cementing foundations for the referendum talks over the summer, which now appear certain to reach a deal by the end of this month.
The sudden attention is new, and marks a change from the attitude of the post-devolution period. But Nationalist figures note that the actual dynamic harks back to former times. Forty years ago, Labour’s Scottish Secretary Willie Ross happily used the threat of nationalism to winkle out cash and attention from Whitehall. Now, it is Alex Salmond performing the Ross role, forcing London to prick up its ears – or face the consequences. It might work in the short term, and it may even see Scotland getting a disproportionately big say in the UK compared with other parts of the nation; but this isn’t a particularly healthy way to run a country, they note.
So the question facing Whitehall elites is whether their attention will be fleeting and finished the moment that the referendum is over (if they win), or whether they might take the chance to have a more fundamental look at where power should lie in the UK.
The temptation might be to believe that, if they see off Alex Salmond, the whole issue will simply go away and they can forget again about stuff north of Hampstead. History suggests this would be wrong.