Brian Wilson: Raise a glass to Nicholas Macpherson

Sir Nicholas Macpherson acted according to established principle; Alex Salmond is simply an opportunist. Picture: PA
Sir Nicholas Macpherson acted according to established principle; Alex Salmond is simply an opportunist. Picture: PA
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Salmond’s criticism of the top man at the Treasury is rich coming from the author of Scotland’s Future, writes Brian Wilson

ALEX Salmond had a busy week, touring the salons and studios of effete London to incite support for the Tories, as an alternative to his own guiding hand being on the tiller of government.

He didn’t quite put it like that but everyone, apart from the wilfully blind, could spot what he was up to. Within this crowded schedule, the First Minister Emeritus took time out to call for the resignation of Sir Nicholas Macpherson, permanent secretary to the Treasury.

Sir Nicholas, he intoned, had been guilty of the heinous crime of standing up to him. Well, he didn’t quite put it like that either. Salmond’s more portentous complaint was that Macpherson had “chosen not to follow the path of impartiality” and so must fall on his sword.

As one might expect, nobody paid heed to a demand that was comically ironic. For a man whose mission has been to demolish every vestige of political independence in the Scottish Civil Service to promote himself as guardian of “impartiality” takes an epic degree of cheek.

I must declare myself as very much pro-Sir Nick for reasons that long pre-date the referendum. A few years back, I wrote a profile of him because of his West Highland background. He admitted that he always set a test for Treasury policies – “will it be good for Lochcarron”.

That was pretty unusual and I am in favour of people in high places having that kind of hinterland. More recently, I suspect the good things Danny Alexander has pushed through for the Highlands and Islands – and in fairness, there are quite a few – have been assisted by his Permanent Secretary’s application of the Lochcarron Test.

I am also aware that Sir Nicholas played a major role in saving the Scottish banks from the “Yours for Scotland” folly which could have brought them to their knees. So all things considered, I regard Sir Nicholas as a sound sort of chap, well versed in matters Scottish and sympathetic thereto.

Salmond seems to particularly dislike him because he went to Eton. I tend towards the view that children are not responsible for where they were sent to school and it is how they perform as adults that matters more. On that basis, Sir Nicholas passes the Lochcarron Test with flying colours.

Anyway, Salmond wanted Macpherson sacked because, during the referendum campaign, he published advice to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the subject of currency union. The Public Administration Select Committee of the House of Commons has said that this “compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK’s most senior civil servants”.

Sir Nicholas’s case for the defence was that exceptional times demanded exceptional measures. It was his job to represent the position of the UK government and this meant pointing out that a currency union would be “fraught with difficulty” which is mild Sir Humphrey-speak for there being not a chance in hell of it actually happening.

While procedures and precedents are important, so too is the truth. That surely is the acid test. The Scottish Government had produced a nakedly political White Paper, written by civil servants, which blithely asserted, on the authority of a bogus “Fiscal Commission”, that Scotland would carry on using sterling as if nothing had happened.

In Salmond’s ideal world, nobody would have dared contradict this – and certainly not the second most senior mandarin in Whitehall. For years, he exploited the assumption that everyone else would fight by Marquess of Queensberry rules, no matter how many low blows were inflicted. If he said there would be a currency union, who was going to challenge him? He had reckoned without Sir Nicholas and the Lochcarron Test.

It was much the same story with Salmond’s other great grievance about the Treasury press release which stated (again, truthfully) that the Royal Bank of Scotland would move its headquarters to London in the event of independence. The substance and implications of that story mattered a lot more than the process of it entering the public domain.

There is another delightful irony in the origins of Salmond’s grievance. On the day in question, it was his journal of choice, the Sun, which broke the story that Lloyds Bank had drawn up contingency plans to move its headquarters out of Scotland. The same story in the Sun quoted an RBS source saying they would “probably follow suit”.

Unsurprisingly, the Sun followed up its own exclusive by asking the Treasury for comment. Since the Treasury owned most of RBS on our behalf, it had a considerable interest from several perspectives – financial stability among them.

A response was drafted and Salmond claimed some great revelation by identifying the junior civil servant who issued it – scarcely Woodward and Bernstein territory since his name and phone number were on the press release. His ultimate boss, moaned Salmond, was “Sir Nicholas Macpherson, the man who believed civil service impartiality did not apply to the referendum”.

Set aside the fact that the same select committee report castigated the Scottish Government White Paper for “using public funds to promote the agenda of a political party”. And don’t even mention that Sir Peter Housden, Salmond’s house-trained Permanent Secretary, was taken to task for presiding over that farce without a murmur.

Let’s just concentrate on the question of who was telling the truth and who was desperate to suppress it. As far as I can find, nobody subsequently disputed the inevitability of the banks and other financial institutions, with most of their business south of the Border, moving headquarters in the event of independence. The Nationalist defence became that this would only involve “shifting the nameplate”. I suppose you could question why Scottish Nationalists think it a derisory matter that the nameplates of our historic banks and financial institutions should be removed to London. But of course, it would not have ended there – and may not end there yet. According to the Quebec precedent, bets will continue to be hedged for as long as there is uncertainty.

It is not difficult to see why those who strove so hard to silence dissent should cast Sir Nick as the devil who disturbed their dreams. But the rest of us, who prefer truth to fiction, should raise our glasses to him. Let’s make it pink champagne.