Yes, First Minister
You know, there is an aspect of the new SNP administration to which insufficient attention has been paid. That is the role of the civil service.
From the very moment of his election as First Minister, Alex Salmond was adopted by the civil service. Greeted at the door of Queensberry House, he appeared to me to be palpably purring, just like the Executive car which whisked him up the hill to St Andrews House.
The civil service obeys the office, not the individual. However, that is to neglect the personal relationships which frequently help – or hinder – the effectiveness of government.
To be blunt, the civil service rates Alex Salmond – and, indeed, several of his senior colleagues. They think they are effective, diligent ministers.
I believe that the verdict is reciprocated. Team Salmond was, frankly, impressed by the briefing prepared for the new administration - both in its intellectual scope and its recognition of practical politics.
The SNP might be forgiven for being intuitively suspicious of the service. Perhaps they have folk memories, enhanced by recent disclosures, of past civil service actions which appeared to translate “service to the Crown” into “active antagonism towards the SNP”.
But, in reality, the contemporary relationship is good. It was built in advance when John Swinney held talks with John Elvidge, the Permanent Secretary, and others as to what a putative SNP administration might expect. Such talks, of course, are routinely held with all potential governments.
Again, Swinney was impressed. Impressed by the attention to detail, impressed by the seriousness with which these discussions were imbued.
That respect, which is mutual, has continued into office. Not least when the civil service provided the detailed, legislative analysis for the White Paper on Scotland’s constitutional future.
Just think for a moment what that involved. Servants of the Crown. Members of a common United Kingdom civil service. Drafting a document which envisages seriously and in detail the abolition of that United Kingdom.
In all, it was a thorough piece of work. I was a little intrigued, I confess, by Section 3.21 which stated, without caveat, that “an independent Scotland would continue in the European Union and bear the burdens and fulfil the responsibilities of membership”.
I had rather thought that was still, to some extent at least, the subject of political controversy, not a statement of unalloyed official fact.
However, elsewhere, the document makes clear that there would be negotiations concerning the status of Scotland – and the rest of the UK – in the EU. So perhaps we should read it in the round.
In any event, the civil service has performed its role well - serving, objectively, the administration which emerges from the popular choice.
So all’s fine and dandy? Well, not quite. I believe there are intrinsic tensions, even contradictions, in the current set-up which may require resolution or, at least, finesse.
The Civil Service Code (Scottish Executive version) advises officials in Scotland that they are “accountable to Scottish Ministers who are, in turn, accountable to the Scottish Parliament”.
They are further enjoined that they must “act in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future Government.” Don’t you just love that?
All clear so far. But, remember, these Scottish Executive officials are also members of the UK Home civil service.
They are, to quote the code, “an integral and key part of the government of the United Kingdom”.
How do they square working for an SNP administration – while their London colleagues are working for the SNP’s bitter rivals?
There is meant to be a constant exchange of information between Whitehall and Edinburgh in order to sustain government. But isn’t that rather difficult when the civil service is serving two masters?
How can an official in London provide confidential briefing to a colleague in Edinburgh – in the knowledge that that briefing may go to a Minister who is the declared opponent of his Ministers in London? Ditto the other way round.
When it comes to negotiations in the European Union, the UK Government and the devolved administrations are meant to form a common line.
How is that possible when the two administrations may be pursuing different objectives – and there may be an absence of mutual trust?
I am, generally, an admirer of our civil service. Yes, it can be exasperatingly keen on process.
But it can also help take the long view, constraining the publicity-seeking enthusiasm of “here today and gone tomorrow” Ministers (to borrow Robin Day’s splendid phrase.)
But I think our civil service has its work cut out here. That code again sums up impartiality as “acting solely according to the merits of the case and serving equally well Governments of different political persuasions”.
Wise words. But did they really envisage that the collective UK civil service would be embracing two governments of different persuasions – at the same time?