The notion of Scotland being reoriented as a ‘Scandinavian’ country, at the expense of links with England, the Commonwealth and Europe, is odd enough; but stranger still is the revelation this week that the plan — part of a massive ‘Prospectus for Independence’ — is being put together by a branch of the UK civil service. These servants of the Crown have been tasked by Alex Salmond with selling separatism to the electorate, in advance of an independence referendum. For Scots it was a shock, but not a surprise. This is only the latest demonstration of how what ought to be part of the British government machine has been made an instrument of separatist propaganda.
This subversive scenario was never supposed to happen. The architects of devolution designed it on the premise of a seamless United Kingdom administrative structure, with the head of the Scottish Executive’s civil service reporting to the Cabinet Secretary in Whitehall. The political masters might come and go, but the government machine would remain unionist. All such safeguards are failing in Scotland, to the bewilderment of Westminster. It was supposed to be impossible for the SNP to command an overall majority in Holyrood, thanks to the proportional representation system; unthinkable that Scottish Labour and the Scottish Tories would collapse in the way both have done.
Yet even Alex Salmond must be taken aback by arguably the least expected development: that Scotland’s most senior civil servant, an Englishman, would apparently reinvent himself as a separatist. The seemingly partisan conduct of Sir Peter Housden, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Executive, is becoming a scandal — and one with profound implications for British politics. Lord Forsyth, the last Tory Scottish Secretary, raised this in parliament two months ago, asking why the head of the Scottish Civil Service could advise officials to go to see a play depicting an English army of occupation in 11th-century Scotland on the grounds that it ‘does genuinely speak to our present condition as a nation’.
In a memo to subordinates immediately after the SNP won an overall majority at last May’s Scottish elections, beginning ‘And now we go to it’, Housden dismissed David Cameron’s plans for a limited transfer of tax-raising powers to Holyrood, embodied in the Scotland Bill currently going through Parliament, as ‘lost in the mists of time’. He urged his officials to ‘embark on a journey toward constitutional reform’ and provided an internet link to a newspaper article, which he described as ‘essential reading’, that denounced ‘unionist fundamentalism’.
Sir Peter has seasoned his political partiality with a strong flavour of personal eccentricity. His weekly blog addressed to civil servants featured ramblings on topics such as yoga classes, shopping and his neighbour’s cats. Their publication provoked derision, ranging from ‘torrents of irrelevance’ to ‘toe-curling drivel’. He has been described as ‘the David Brent of Scotland’s civil service’. A Scotsman leading article published last month consisted of a parody of his blog. When the Scottish Permanent Secretary has become a figure of fun as well as of distrust, then things are serious.
Arguably, Sir Peter was already a busted flush before he migrated north and wrapped himself in the Saltire. While running the Department for Communities and Local Government, he presided over a calamitous attempt to centralise the fire service in England which cost almost half a billion pounds (£469 million) of taxpayers’ money before being scrapped. The Public Accounts Committee described it as ‘one of the worst cases of project failure that the Committee has seen in many years’. It commented: ‘The careers of most of the senior staff responsible have carried on as if nothing had gone wrong at all.’
This is borne out by the fact that Sir Peter Housden was rewarded with a knighthood and given the Scottish Civil Service to play with. Perhaps it was thought that Sir Peter, a Shropshire lad, was unlikely to go native at Holyrood. He has shown a capacity to defy ministers. In his old job, he opposed Labour’s plans to create a unitary authority for Norwich on grounds of cost and demanded a letter of direction — generally regarded as the nuclear option — from the minister, John Denham, to indemnify himself and his colleagues from legal action. Such chippiness (it is said he regards himself as a state-educated outsider among the Sir Humphreys of Whitehall) gives him a natural affinity with the Scottish grievance culture.
Leaders of all three Scottish opposition parties have complained to the Cabinet Secretary about Sir Peter’s conduct (he rejected their complaint). They are also appalled that both Sir Peter and the Cabinet Secretary approved Alex Salmond’s creation of a new civil service post of Director General for External Affairs to promote the independence agenda, at a salary of up to £208,000. Sir Gus O’Donnell’s judgment, too, is severely in question. With Alex Salmond employing every Machiavellian device to subvert the union, Whitehall should have sent one of its best men to Edinburgh.
The result is now plain to see. Alex Salmond, so formidable an operator that he was named The Spectator’s politician of the year, is now being aided and abetted by the government machine in a policy of Stealth Determination. He is outwitting and outmanoeuvring his unionist opponents, so mired in other woes that none of their London leaderships wants to so much as glance north of the Border. Mr Cameron’s government has been too timid in countering Salmond, and this is the outcome.
Instead, Salmond should be confronted. Cameron ought to seize the initiative and hold a referendum on whether to stay in the union: ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Otherwise separatism will spread like dry rot, having already penetrated the civil service, as symptomised by Sir Peter Housden’s behaviour. Leadership is required in London. It is time to afford Sir Peter the leisure to spend more time with his neighbour’s cats while the principle of impartiality is restored to the civil service.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 10, 2011Tags: Gerald Warner, Politics