Top mandarin accused of 'fawning' over Salmond and breaking bias rule

SCOTLAND'S senior civil servant has courted further political controversy by criticising the UK government for failing to properly communicate with the Scottish Executive during the row over Tony Blair's treaty negotiations with Libya.

Sir John Elvidge said Whitehall left Scotland little time to consider the implications of the former prime minister's talks with Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, which provoked the first significant policy rift between the SNP Executive and London.

The Executive's Permanent Secretary said there was a communication breakdown between London and Edinburgh over the secret talks, which Alex Salmond used to claim that the Scottish legal system had been bypassed by London.

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The First Minister sparked the first major clash with Westminster by claiming the memorandum of understanding signed by Mr Blair involved a plan to allow Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, to return to Libya to serve out his jail term - a charge Downing Street emphatically denied.

However, in a second public intervention into the kind of political controversy normally avoided by politically neutral civil servants, Sir John said he supported Mr Salmond's case.

In a Scottish Television interview, to be broadcast today, Sir John said of the row: "The lesson everybody took from that is you can be too late in communicating as well as too quick."

Asked whether London was too late communicating with the Scottish civil service, Sir John replied: "It felt to us like a big issue on which we were left with very little time to understand the implications."

Sir John also defended the Executive's publication of an independence white paper, which opposition parties have claimed is a waste of public money as there is no majority support for it at Holyrood.

However, Sir John said: "All governments are entitled to set out their policies. I don't really see [the SNP's] policies on constitutional change are different to anything else."

Sir John's intervention follows an interview he gave to The Scotsman last month which provoked an angry response from opposition politicians due to his claim that, despite being part of the UK civil service, he now regarded himself as working for a "separate government".

Last night, George Foulkes, a Labour MSP, said: "I'm forced to pose serious questions about the impartiality of the civil service.

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"Sir John's fawning remarks highlight the importance of a UK-wide civil service which can share knowledge and experience whilst also enshrining impartiality at its core."

Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Tories' deputy leader said: "It is interesting that even the civil service recognise that there was a failure on the part of the UK government to properly consult with the Scottish Executive on the Megrahi issue."

In the same programme, Jack McConnell, the former first minister, accused Mr Salmond of trying to "hoodwink journalists" by using an emergency statement to the Scottish Parliament late one afternoon in June to reveal that the talks had taken place.

Mr McConnell said: "I think that was a very good example of political calculation taking over from the sort of action that was required of a First Minister on that occasion.

"I suspect he was right to raise the concerns he raised. I would have done so myself - I may even have done so publicly in the way that he did.

"But to raise those concerns in the parliament last thing on a Thursday, in a way that was calculated to avoid scrutiny, rather than in the days previously when he was first made aware of the position, I think was a political decision designed to hoodwink journalists."


JACK McConnell has warned his Labour successor - and other opposition leaders - not to trust Alex Salmond.

In this evening's Scottish Television programme, Mr McConnell says: "Never accept anything [from Alex Salmond] at face value. Always be a little bit sceptical about what you're being told, or when you're being told it.

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"That would be a very wise approach, not just for my successor, but it would also be a very wise approach for the leaders of the other opposition parties to take as well."

Asked if he is saying that Mr Salmond, is not trustworthy, Mr McConnell replies: "As if I would say that."

Referring to Mr Salmond's recent policy announcements, Mr McConnell says he is "astonished by some of the people who have fallen for his communications over these past few months".

He adds: "I think maybe Alex Salmond and the SNP have been a little bit guilty of being too triumphalist over the summer; making big promises, spending a lot of money in different areas."