We need a civil service which dares to say 'No, Minister' - Brian Wilson

Good luck to the newly-appointed Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, John-Paul Marks.

John-Paul Marks,  the new permanent secretary to the Scottish Government. PIC: Contributed.
John-Paul Marks, the new permanent secretary to the Scottish Government. PIC: Contributed.

After a blameless civil service career overseeing such tasks as the introduction of Universal Credit, he will find Edinburgh full of possibilities and pitfalls.

My best advice is to avoid blogging. His predecessor but one, Sir Peter Housden, was ten minutes in the place when he fell into the Salmond clutches and was advising the entire Scottish civil service to watch Braveheart on grounds that it ‘does genuinely speak to our present condition as a nation’. The Scotsman devoted an editorial to parodying Sir Peter’s starry-eyed Caledonian musings.

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.However, the politicisation of the Scottish civil service was no laughing matter. It culminated in the White Paper of 2013 which serves as a reminder of what happens when civil servants are forced to lend credence to political fabrications – like the “likely average price of oil” being $112 a barrel, an assumption, it is timely to recall, on which the economics of independence depended.

Then we had Lesley Evans, who Mr Marks will replace, as another object lesson in what goes wrong when politicians and civil servants become intertwined in a shared project. They end up in court spending large sums of public money defending the indefensible. And so it goes on from there.

Much of the past 14 years have been devoted to undermining the independence of the Scottish civil service and holding safeguards like Freedom of Information in contempt. Mr Marks’ first duty is to create a climate in which civil servants again feel safe to say: “No, Minister”. Good luck, indeed.