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Yes, First Minister

Brian Taylor | 12:07 UK time, Thursday, 30 August 2007

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?


  • 1.
  • At 12:21 PM on 30 Aug 2007,
  • Chris wrote:

Interesting stuff. No-one's really highlighted this inherent tension before.

Does anyone know what the exact 'rules' are about the sharing of information within the civil service? For example, to what extent are Scottish Executive civil servants obliged to divulge information to their 'London masters' about their ongoing policy work with Scottish Executive ministers?

You can very easily see conflict emerging here. The answer is frankly blindingly obvious - a separate Scottish Civil Service - but I suspect Brian feels that's too 'party political' for him to assert. If the system remains as it is, this undercurrent of tension will never be overcome.

  • 2.
  • At 12:44 PM on 30 Aug 2007,
  • john wrote:

Doesnt the answer lie in Nothern Ireland where they have there own seperate Civil Service ?

  • 3.
  • At 01:05 PM on 30 Aug 2007,
  • Gregor wrote:

Of course, if Scotland were independent, or at least, the Scottish Civil Service were an independent entity, they would not have to serve two masters!

  • 4.
  • At 02:11 PM on 30 Aug 2007,
  • Paul wrote:

As a former civil servant, I can confirm that civil servants are human! Just like anyone else they will work harder for bosses who they respect and who listen to their views.

The best way for any Government to achieve their policy objectives is to work with civil servants rather than view them with contempt as obstacles to progress.

Shrewd man that he is, the First Minister has no doubt realised the benefits to the SNP of charming those who work for the Executive.

It should also be noted that the civil service in Scotland - while obviously politically neutral - has enjoyed the challenge of delivering devolution.

And whatever their own personal political preferences, civil servants' professional pride is hurt every time the Unionists argue that Scotland can't run its own affairs.

Confidence breeds confidence. If Salmond and his team can convince the civil service that independence really is workable, they may well do all they can to prove him right.

  • 5.
  • At 02:42 PM on 30 Aug 2007,
  • Scott wrote:

We just need to go down the road of Northern Ireland, at least untill the Scottish Parliament is returned the full powers of a normal parliament, and have a completely seperate civil service.

  • 6.
  • At 02:55 PM on 30 Aug 2007,
  • John Kaye wrote:

The Civil Servants in Edinburgh are perhaps delighted to have found in the new Executive a set of people keen to learn and understand and, because they (the new Exec) are really a 'clean sheet' so much more appreciative of their knowledge and expertise. I would imagine that the previous Labour admin - if they were functioning anything like the Downing Street regime - would prefer to use outside special advisers and an army of spin doctors for advice rather than the mandarins of the Civil Service whose advice might not be what they wanted to hear. I firmly believe that Tony Blair’s Labour government undermined the Civil Service to quite an alarming degree.
The fact that there is now a party other than Labour in the driving seat in Scotland must cause a problem for all the reasons cited by Brian. Ì do reckon a separate ‘Scottish Civil Service’ will be the only answer.

  • 7.
  • At 06:51 PM on 30 Aug 2007,
  • louise wrote:

The civil service in scotland seem to be the only people who are not running scared of london labour. The press in particular are terrible. Go to any newspaper rack and you will see that the papers that are selling most are the broadsheets because people know that in them at least they will get some of the news reported.
Like the discussion with the gentleman from the scottish civil service (sorry i dont recall his name). He described how things had changed under the snp and the paper whipped it up into ooh wait a minute he is responsible to westminster. So westminster expect the civil service to spy for them now. Tsk Tsk. Of course they have to change in response to the snp being in government i think it shows how good our civil service is. I for one was impressed with the work that had obviously gone into the white paper. I say they deserve a pat on the back for it.

  • 8.
  • At 08:12 PM on 30 Aug 2007,
  • louise wrote:

WOW look everybody they actually let the SNP talk for once. A piece on john swinney on the bbc politics page. Are they finally catching on. Brian how about we discuss why the media isnt keeping up.

  • 9.
  • At 11:13 PM on 30 Aug 2007,
  • Maria Scott wrote:

Actually, references to the position of the "rest of the UK" and the EU should Scotland go independent are ridiculous. The UK was the union of Scotland and England in 1707. If Scotland splits, then England, which was already joined with Wales, does not become the "UK". Can we have some historically informed politically reporting, please?

  • 10.
  • At 09:50 AM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • nads wrote:

To expand on Maria's post, an intriguing question: UK is United Kingdom, there were only 2, Scotland and England. Wales was only ever a principality, wasn't it (no condescent here, I come from a grand-duchy...) and Northern-Ireland - no idea.

So the UK would indeed not exist any longer, but what would 'what's left' be called? The United Kingdom of England, Principality of Wales and ... of Northern Ireland? That would be quite a mouthful. A more modern version maybe not referring to the country 'titles' acquired in past history, but rather emphasising the commonality of the remaining members?

I guess we'd have a referendum on it!

  • 11.
  • At 10:47 AM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • PMK wrote:

England "and the rest" are no successor state if the UK breaks up. The UK is a legal entity composed of GB + NI. GB is Scotland, England and Wales - by definition there is no successor state. Either the all are chucked out on a technicality, or all states resulting from the end of the United Kingdom are automatically recognised a members.

  • 12.
  • At 10:47 AM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • mairi macleod wrote:

brian, why should it surprise you the civil service are (getting along)
with the their job, for starters,but perhaps alex is'nt politisizing it as the past encompant
did on a regular bassis,or they actully like who they are working with, and if its london they take
orders fron what on earth are they doing here? that might be your answer!! who knows!!

  • 13.
  • At 11:01 AM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • Willian Hogg wrote:

I am surprised that people are still confused about the SNP position on the UK. They don't intend to split the United KINGDOM but the United Parliament (which to a certain extent has already happened). The Queen will still be The Queen of Scotland, England, etc. (ie Her Majesty's United KINGDOM, or should that be Queendom).

  • 14.
  • At 11:43 AM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • William Hogg wrote:

Why do people think that Scotland will need to negotiate new treaties at the point of independence (eg NATO, EU, UN, Human Rights etc). The residual treaty obligations of an independent Scotland are strongly suggested to be the continuation of all treaty obligations of the present state. Please see the UN document, “ The Convention on Succession of States in Respect of Treaties “-

It seems that we will be hard pressed to get out of these treaty obligations.

  • 15.
  • At 04:23 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • Dave "Boy" wrote:

I may be wrong on this but.....

The UK is a Political Union of 2 Geographical enities.....Great Britain, and Northern Ireland. Independence will mean political separation from the rest of Great Britain, therefore the UK will cease to exist as we know it. They may decide to call it something else, but however you look at it, independence would defiitely split the UK. I dont see how we can gain independence AND remain within the UK as #13 suggests.

And of course, no matter the outcome, we will always be British!

  • 16.
  • At 05:43 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • Anastacia wrote:

No-one wants the service split, as we've all seen how badly things went in NI when they were a separate service.

And to the ignorant out there, we do not have London or English masters. We work for the Scottish Executive. That's it. Except that from Monday we'll be working for the Scottish Government. Different name, same powers, but it is apparently being done to please them at the top - like they don't have more serious issues to deal with.

I am of a unionist persuasion, yet like other civil servants, when I am at work, I leave that at the front door, and work to the best of my ability towards the current administration's goals. It's a pity some of the SNP administration can't give us credit for that.

#6 - there are civil servants in places other than Edinburgh you know.

#12 - you quite plainly don't know what you're talking about. A Salmond for one is treating the civil servants around him far less civilly than his predecessor, and is apparently determined to politicise the service.

  • 17.
  • At 07:58 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • Ronald Alastair Seago wrote:

I thought the united Kingdom came into being in 1603 when James 6th of Scotland became King of England & Wales also.Great Britain didn't come into existance until 1707, so we could still be the United Kingdom even with political independence. Just wouldn't be Great Britain anymore

  • 18.
  • At 12:18 AM on 01 Sep 2007,
  • Cat wrote:

Still got to say it....Re post 12 FM's office is in meltdown.....staff can't escape fast enough...

  • 19.
  • At 12:19 AM on 01 Sep 2007,
  • suzy q wrote:

Hi Brian - amazing blog!

Would just like to say that my friend is in a fairly ranking position in the civil service. He had become massively jaded with the previous Labour administation but, being the fairly cynical person he is anyway, is pretty positive towards the SNP Government. His main arguments are that they are willing to take advice on board, LISTEN to what is being said and take on board a range of opinions,whether they agree with them or not. This is a positive step for Scotland regardless. It's time there was a review of the Scottish Parliament's powers, and now is the best time to facilitate this.

  • 20.
  • At 10:27 AM on 02 Sep 2007,
  • David wrote:

It seams the Civil Service is at least more comfortable adapting to a Scottish SNP Government than the BBC.

  • 21.
  • At 03:27 PM on 04 Sep 2007,
  • Mark Scampion wrote:

Constitutionally, the United Kingdom was just a new name for England (with its constituent territories Wales and [Northern] Ireland) adopted with the unification of the Parliaments in 1707.

The term "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" is a misnomer inasmuch as there was never a unification of the kingdoms of England and Scotland: in terms of historical correctness, HM The Queen is both Queen Elizabeth II of England &c., and Elizabeth, Queen of Scots. (Interesting, that the English form makes her a ruler of LAND whilst in Scotland she is the ruler of the PEOPLE!) Hence, the two 1953 coronations - Westminster Abbey and St. Giles Cathedral.

In the run-up to the 1997 General Election, much was made of Labour's proposal to give the Scottish people a parliament, ignoring the fact that whenever Westminster politicians met to discuss exclusively Scottish legislation (cf. the premature introduction of the Community Charge/Poll Tax), they WERE the Parliament of Scotland.

NOT a United Kingdom but two legal entities (nations) with unified Government!

As long as Scotland retained a separate and distinct legal system, it retained independence, with authority devolved TO Westminster. The departure of Scotland from a so-called United Kingdom would be akin to the departure of four-sixths of Yugoslavia (with Serbia and Montenegro officially retaining the latter title, and memberships of international organisations).

As to Civil Service loyalties, any servant serves the master who has the power to hire and (more sgnificantly) fire. An autonomous Scottish Civil Service naturally has merit, but civil servants should be expected to serve those who are responsible to the electorate for their decisions (for devolved matters, that would be the Scottish Ministers).

It is ironic that one of the Prime Minister's few ministerial responsibilities is as Minister for the Civil Service, and yet not all of the Civil Service act in the service of his Government.

  • 22.
  • At 11:53 AM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • John Constable wrote:

As an Englishman, I find it very hard to understand why some Scots are complaining about the current political situation in Scotland.

You Scots, quite unlike us English, actually have your own country as a valid, coherent political entity.

Furthermore, in the SNP, you actually have Scots running Scotland, again quite unlike England, where we, in effect, have a Scottish Raj pushing us English around.

I am praying that Alex Salmond and the SNP will incrementally get Scotland to full independence because that will finally free us English to try and get our own country back (in the political sense).

  • 23.
  • At 12:10 PM on 05 Sep 2007,
  • The Director wrote:

Yes a New Scottish Civil Service that shall answer to the Scottish Government and serving the people of Scotland.

In terms of coherent management I think that a separate civil service is probably the most appropriate route for Scotland.

With greater fiscal and political autonomy it is only a matter of time that Scotland will gain Independence.

The face of Scottish Politics has evolved and its time that the Civil Service on a structural emphasis does the same and serves a Scottish Government so that there can be no conflicts of interests.

  • 24.
  • At 07:58 PM on 09 Sep 2007,
  • Hugo wrote:

The UK is the union of the Kingdoms (Queendoms?)

GB is the political union of Parliaments.

The SNP are seeking the break-up of the political union.

Unfortunately UK is often used to mean the political union of Parliaments, causing confusion.

  • 25.
  • At 05:14 PM on 11 Sep 2007,
  • yvonne veitch wrote:

Excerpt from,

The Treaty of Union Between Scotland and England 1707.
The Legal Basis of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

Act ratifying and approving the Treaty of Union of the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England, January 16th, 1707

i.That the two Kingdoms of Scotland and England shall, upon the first day of May next ensuing the date hereof, and forever after, be united into one Kingdom by the name of Great Britain.

iii.That the United Kingdom of Great Britain be represented by one and the same Parliament, to be stiled the Parliament of Great Britain.

Hope this clears up any misunderstanding.

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