John McTernan: White paper damns civil service

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon launch the white paper. Picture: Robert Perry
Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon launch the white paper. Picture: Robert Perry
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Scotland’s Future wasn’t a government publication, it was an SNP manifesto, and its production was an abuse of public funds, writes John McTernan

MANY democracies have a winner-takes-all system. When a party takes over, it sweeps across the country making political appointments. Civil servants and judges in some countries. Chairmen and chief executives of broadcasters in others. This spoils system is alien to the UK. Here, ministers appoint only a handful of staff – their special advisers – and those appointees have no power to direct or instruct civil servants. This system has survived broadly unchanged for 160 years, setting the rules of the game and allowing swift transition from one government to another. Compare that with the USA, where more than 1,000 presidential appointments have to be approved by the Senate, leading to a situation where some jobs are not filled until the third year of a president’s term. But what happens when a new government does not care about the rules of the game, but instead wants to change the game completely? That is one of the many questions thrown up in the referendum campaign: what loyalty to the system can those who want to smash it have?

The Commons public administration select committee (PASC) has launched an inquiry into “civil service impartiality and referendums”. Its call for evidence closes today and the course of its inquiry can be followed on social media – #CSScotland. It will find much to be concerned about in the conduct of the civil servants who work for the Scottish Government, who have undergone a politicisation unprecedented in the UK.

The normalisation has been a lengthy process – after all, it took six years to get civil servants to the position where they would write and publish an SNP manifesto as a government publication. But it has been a remarkably unchallenged one – civil society has been unusually silent and cowed in the face of this abuse of government resources. This is where the PASC should start – with the scandal of Scotland’s Future. How could any civil servant who adhered to the Civil Service Code and its commitment to impartiality have been involved in drafting and authorising the use of public money to publish a political party’s manifesto?

That this is an SNP manifesto is clear from the way Alex Salmond and his team refer to it. If Scotland votes “Yes” then they say that they will deliver every single one of this document’s promises. In the unlikely event of separation, the only thing we actually know about the government of Scotland is that we don’t know who would form that government. So, Salmond can only be talking for himself and his own party. That is confirmed by the drafting – this is a document of “will”, not “may”, the language of the party political pledge, not that of deliberation. Let alone the presentation of “pros and cons” by civil servants referred to in the published Good Practice Advice in the Run-Up to the Referendum on Independence.

Just look at the detail of the white paper. Take Trident – here’s what it says: “Trident is an affront to basic decency with its indiscriminate and inhumane destructive power.” It’s a view, not mine, and not the country’s, but that’s not the point – there is no way that meets the test of objectivity and impartiality. Perfectly alright for a conference speech but not for a government publication. If it were that, then it would share the facts and figures used by other government departments. Instead it makes up its own. The cost of Trident cited is not that of the Ministry of Defence – £25 billion over 50 years – which a government white paper would do, but an entirely invented figure of £100bn. Again, acceptable for a bit of party knock-about but not for civil servants committed to honesty. There are many more examples, but these two are stark and clear.

Scotland’s Future does not stand alone. It is supported by a massive advertising spend which includes a website – staffed by civil servants and paid for by us. The PASC should take a look at that. Go to and take a look at its Questions and Answers. One asks: “Isn’t the Scottish Parliament going to get more powers anyway if Scotland votes No?” To which the answer is: “The only way for Scotland to get all the powers needed to make Scotland a better place is through independence.” Again a matter of opinion – not of fact. The exact opposite of something a civil service committed to honesty and integrity should produce – and a statement that should not be supported by public funds. The select committee should use these examples as a starting point – they are only the most egregious. But they need to dig deeper. What was the thought process of the civil servants who produced this SNP material and how did they persuade themselves it was acceptable? The senior civil service needs to be questioned on this, not just Sir Peter Housden, the Scottish Government’s permanent secretary. We know from his infamous blogging that he apparently went native shortly after arrival in St Andrew’s House. For it is the entire civil service culture that has been corrupted. The PASC needs to understand the dynamics, indeed the psychology, of this change. That is the first step towards reversing it.

There is little doubt that if any political party other than the SNP were to form an administration at Holyrood – and, as this is a democracy, that will happen in due course – they would not be able to trust the civil service they inherited. Not even if there were a few ritual replacements at the top of the office. Thinking ideologically like a Nationalist has become the way that UK civil servants working for the Scottish Government go about their daily business. The answer is not for Labour, Tory or Liberal Democrat politicians to demand the bureaucracy stays political but merely aligns itself with a new ideology. The answer has to be a wholesale change of the way in which the civil service thinks and works. We should be grateful that the public administration select committee is starting the necessary work.