Britannia Waives the Rules, or The Empire Strikes Back

During the mid-eighties I worked for a contractor servicing Shell oil platforms, which meant that I spent a significant amount of time offshore. One of the most striking things was the quality of the different platforms, from the oldest one (the ‘Auk’) which was like a cramped, high density seabed-mounted prison, to the more roomy modern ones (for example the Fulmar Alpha) which were like hotels, with 24 hour kitchens, so that no matter when you finished work, you could pile in there for large quantities of extremely high quality food. Particularly striking for me were the 3 to 4 different types of trifles that were always on offer. I remember one night, sitting down with David Matheson, a friend from school (his dad was the manager of the service company, who had hired me after I left medical school as their medical officer), and taking a break from my selection of trifles to stare with some puzzlement at the contents of his plate. “But, Dave”, I queried, gesturing towards his food, “aren’t you a vegetarian?” “Oh, yes’” he said, without a trace of internal conflict “but you can’t say no to a really good steak” – and he continued to tuck in, with great relish.

I found myself thinking of that incident this weekend, in the context of the oft-propounded impartiality of the Civil Service.

Last year during the Referendum campaign, there were two clear instances that called this supposed professionalism and impartiality into question. The first was the famous February Statement by George Osborne, backed by Danny Alexander and Ed Balls, that a shared currency would be refused by the UK Government with an independent Scotland – backed up by the highly unusual step of the Permanent Secretary of the Treasury publishing his letter of advice to that effect. Questions were asked at the time about this curious move, as it appeared an overtly political one, on the part of Sir Nicholas Macpherson.

It is revealing to reflect at this point on just who Macpherson is, before we consider his extraordinary actions as a civil servant. Even without the ‘Sir’, he would be a clear part of the establishment, as his family own significant swathes of Ross-shire, in particular the £13 million 32,000 acre Attadale Estate (historically part of the Clan Matheson lands – no relation to Dave, I think…), and he was educated at Eton and Oxford. So, already, we might have an idea of what colour his particular impartiality is.

The published letter made the role of the Treasury a somewhat controversial one within the Civil Service – such ‘advice’ is generally supposed to remain confidential, to keep the apparatus of the state out of the public eye and distinctly separate from the government of the day. And the question of its ‘impartiality’ is a somewhat moot one, advising any rUK Chancellor not to agree to such a currency union, thus supporting Osborne’s position – a strategy supposedly contrived by Alistair Darling, the leader of ‘Better Together’ in the belief that a united Unionist front would reverse the ‘Yes’ campaign’s fortunes.

In the event, of course, it did precisely the reverse – the last thing Scots were going to respond well to was a Conservative public schoolboy from down south coming to Scotland to tell them what they could and could not do – and the ‘Yes’ campaign surged upwards in the wake of that wonderful miscalculation.

But the specific question of the Treasury’s letter supporting the move was another matter. So why did Sir Nick decide to break Civil Service protocol to do this?: “because I regarded it as my duty…the British state’s position was being impugned.” So, yes, completely impartial – but of course, we’ll make an exception for a nice juicy steak, then, eh?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Public Administration Select Committee (chaired by Conservative Bernard Jenkin MP) took a rather dim view of this specious excuse on March 23rd this year, and criticised Macpherson’s decision to publish the letter as it “compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK’s most senior civil servants” when they concluded their inquiry into Civil Service impartiality and referenda.

This was not the only questionable civil service action during the Referendum campaign, and in the last days before the vote, the Treasury’s actions were again in the spotlight. On September 10th, a Treasury official gave the BBC an unsolicited briefing on a key Royal Bank of Scotland board decision, 25 minutes before the RBS board meeting had ended, thus breaching Financial Market Rules as well as Pre-Referendum Guidelines. (As Alex Salmond has noted, the Treasury official in question was the son of Alistair Darling’s former special adviser Catherine MacLeod.) Sir Jeremy Heywood, Head of the Civil Service, was less than keen on calls for an inquiry into who was responsible for this – and there still appears to be some sensitivity regarding this issue within the Treasury: Salmond notes that only a few weeks ago, Sir Nick “sent The Sun and my publishers Harper Collins a letter telling them he was considering consulting his lawyers about me in a last-ditch and futile attempt to get this aspect of the serialisation of ‘The Dream Shall Never Die’ [Alex Salmond’s Referendum Diary book] binned.” On 16th March it was revealed that e-mail trails showed that the Treasury had been lobbying RBS heavily prior to their September 10th meeting, and had indeed prematurely announced it to journalists before the meeting had concluded. In this regard, the Financial Conduct Authority have said that they have no power to take action against the Treasury, but the City of London Police have given assurances that they will take appropriate action (whatever that may mean in a pragmatic reality…).

The issue of civil servants directly sending briefing information to newspapers throughout the Referendum campaign brought the question of their supposed impartiality further into disrepute. This was highlighted in the second week of December. That week, awards recognized the functions of those who had key roles in both the ‘Yes’ and the ‘No’ campaigns: The List’s ‘Hot 100’ gave National Collective second place on December 11th. The same week, Civil Service World Magazine proclaimed that the Treasury’s ‘Scotland Analysis’ Programme Team had scored in the Annual Civil Service Awards. The award had been created to give “particular recognition for their outstanding achievement in making a difference on an issue of national significance”, and was handed to the winners at an awards ceremony at Lancaster House (which is operated by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office). One of the winners, Mario Pisani (a former speechwriter to Alistair Darling, Danny Alexander and George Osborne), commented on how thrilling it was to be part of an active political campaign for a change – and his remarks were immediately taken into consideration by Bernard Jenkin’s committee’s inquiry into Civil Service impartiality in referenda. It certainly seemed that these civil servants saw themselves very clearly as being an active part of the ‘No’ campaign, rather than providing the objective analysis that they would ordinarily be expected to.

And so we come to this Easter Weekend just gone: ‘FrenchGate’, ‘MemoGate’ or ‘GalliGate’ (one for the Glaswegians out there), depending on your hashtag preference. (No doubt if they had been drinking milk at the French Ambassador’s reception, it would be called ‘Cow’n’Gate’…)

With Nicola’s success at the Leaders’ Debates on Thursday night, the Conservative machine swiftly refocused, reissuing the Saatchi posters with Nicola (instead of Alex) bearing Ed Miliband in her jacket pocket. I guess that is high praise indeed for her performance – the oft-quoted Gandhi mantra during the ‘Yes’ campaign comes to mind: first they ignore you, then they mock you, then they come to fight you, and then you win. They finally realised she was just as palpable a ‘threat’ to their Old World Order as they had perceived her predecessor to be. Which explains the second action, as well.

By Friday night, within 24 hours of the end of the Leaders’ Debate, Simon Johnson of the Telegraph was releasing a story on his Twitter feed that Nicola Sturgeon had said in a conversation with the French ambassador at a meeting in February that she would prefer Cameron as Prime Minister, and did not see Ed Milband as PM material. This story was repudiated precisely five minutes later by Nicola as “categorically, 100%, untrue – which I would have told you if you asked me”, and within two hours both the French Ambassador and the French consul general in Edinburgh had both confirmed that Nicola had made no such comment. Nonetheless, it was the lead news story on the BBC for the full 24 hour cycle.

So where had this ‘information’ come from? (Setting to one side Simon’s interesting abrogation of journalistic responsibility in not even attempting to contact either side of the conversation for comment before going to publish). It appears that it was a mysterious alleged memo from a civil servant in the Scottish Office (under Alastair Carmichael, the UK Government’s man in Scotland), written by someone who was not at the meeting, supposedly reporting a conversation between the French consul general and a civil servant in the Scottish Office – again, the French consul general denies that he made such a comment. As one correspondent somewhat acidically put it in a letters page: “When I want to read fiction, I buy a novel; I do not expect the press to provide it in the course of its normal reporting.”

This time, unlike RBS, Sir Jeremy Heywood, the head of the civil service, has confirmed an investigation has been launched into who leaked the memo of the ‘disputed account’ of the meeting, after Nicola Sturgeon wrote to him demanding one. In reality, of course, this is highly unlikely to report anything before election day itself – thus the potential damage of Sturgeon being formally vindicated will be conveniently contained until after May 7th.

First of all, let’s take a moment to consider the bizarre situation of the Conservatives setting up a leak of ‘she will support us’ in order to discredit her…but they did so in the full knowledge that Cameron’s little helpers, the Scottish Labour Party, would jump in with both feet, keen to do their masters’ bidding, as always. A noteworthy and honourable exception to this, was the Labour peer Baron Swraj Paul, who claimed that this story was a sign that Whitehall’s ‘dirty tricks department’ had been working overtime, presumably to beat back Sturgeon’s post-debate surge. If you were around for the televised Leader Debates in 2010, we all remember how Nick Clegg was resoundingly declared the winner there, and then his lead was eaten away in the last week’s up until election day.

It seems likely that this will not be the last attempt to smear Nicola in the run-up to the vote – yet I am struck by two positives that come from this situation. Firstly, it has focused the election campaign on the SNP, and gives them the oxygen of publicity as the drivers of the General Election that they have never had before, and may well never have again. Secondly, as we saw last year, with each attempt by the establishment to discredit ‘Yes’, independence or the SNP, they drive yet more voters to them, with a public increasingly cynical of what they are told by the mainstream press – we are a ‘thrawn’ people, as some would say. So the Scottish vote is unlikely to be significantly impaired.

But that is not the whole story for this election: there are, of course, still negatives, regardless of how well Nicola comes out of this. Firstly, and most seriously, Ed Miliband discredited himself by jumping on the bandwagon so fast to condemn the SNP for ‘supporting Cameron’ on zero evidence, just shortly before the story was roundly refuted and fell apart. This could arguably mean that he will be the biggest loser from this affair, having lost some of the stature that he had gained as a result of his performance in that same Leaders’ Debate on Thursday night. And that endangers the hoped-for SNP-Labour majority, if it impacts on the progressive English vote.

So we will see how this plays out – today Alistair Carmichael’s buffoon-like face has been smiling away, saying that yes, the memo had come from his department, but in “the middle of an election campaign, these things happen.” This resonates well with an observation by Alex Salmond in today’s ‘The National’: “The standards of Government departments reflect the quality of leadership. The leadership of the Scotland Office was Alistair Carmichael and David Mundell. Enough said.”

It is perhaps as predictable that it is depressing that as I approach the 100th post on this blog, we are still dealing with the same dysfunctional state behavior from Westminster that we were battling against during the Referendum campaign – it really is all they know. But I will leave the last summative comment on this whole farce to Nicola Sturgeon, at the end of her live interview with James Cook, just before she spoke at the anti-Trident protest rally (really? she is supposed to want Cameron in as PM?) in George Square on Saturday afternoon:


“I took part in the Leaders’ Debate on Thursday night, and I made very clear in that debate that this election is an opportunity to change the Westminster system because it’s out-of-touch, it’s remote, and it doesn’t serve the needs of people across Scotland and the rest of the UK. I made the case that the election is an opportunity for ordinary people across the UK, to make the Westminster system better reflect their priorities. Perhaps this morning is a sign that the Westminster establishment doesn’t like that message, and they’re beginning to panic about that message: that’s why I’m even more determined to keep taking that message to the streets and the communities of Scotland over the remainder of this campaign.” (Nicola Sturgeon, 4/4/2015, BBC News24)

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