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Office politics

Brian Taylor | 11:14 UK time, Monday, 26 November 2007

So what do you reckon? Do you think Gordon Brown will accede to Alex Salmond’s request and scrap the Scotland Office?

I shouldn’t imagine it’s exactly a top priority for the PM. He has one or two marginally more pressing matters to consider.

In truth, the issue has only resurfaced because of complaints from former army officers about the dual role occupied by Des Browne.

But Alex Salmond knows an opportunity when he spots one. And so yesterday his team issued a demand for the abolition of the Scotland Office.

It was squeezed in alongside praise for Scotland’s dual triumph in the World Cups (we won the golfing version and got a decent draw in the football species).

To be mildly more serious, Mr Salmond enhanced his demand with a suggestion for changing the relationship between the Scottish and UK governments.

He wants a revival of the Joint Ministerial Committee system, designed to tackle disputes between Edinburgh and London. Plus he wants a direct relationship with 10 Downing Street, GHQ for the First Lord of the Treasury.

Don’t see this change happening any time soon. Yes, the Scotland Office has appeared all but redundant, post devolution. Yes, it was on the verge of oblivion at various points during the Blair years.

But, under the part-time Mr Browne and the ever assiduous David Cairns, it’s gained a new role. You may question the validity of that role. You may think it of doubtful value to the smooth running of the state.

However, a role there is. The Scotland Office has taken upon itself the responsibility for keeping a watchful eye upon the new Scottish Government – and its chief protagonist, one A. Salmond.

It does other things too. It helped to facilitate the agreement with Bruce Crawford which allowed the Minister for Parliamentary Business to announce – on the very day of the Queen’s Speech – that Holyrood would be asked to consent to the UK legislating in certain agreed areas of the law which impinged upon devolved powers.

But there are strict limits to that concept of consistent liaison. For example, Edinburgh and London used to share their advance planning diary, the schedule setting out likely news events. That stopped on day one after Alex Salmond’s election and won’t be revived.

So, mostly, the Scotland Office – or, rather, its Ministers and special advisers – check up on the Scottish devolved government, from the standpoint of the UK Government. Bit like an embassy, in fact.


  • 1.
  • At 12:00 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • David wrote:

Brian, in your next post please explain to me because I might be misinterpreting you. However, the comment below in your blog is outrageous to me:

"However, a role there is. The Scotland Office has taken upon itself the responsibility for keeping a watchful eye upon the new Scottish Government – and its chief protagonist, one A. Salmond."

Who are you to call the Government I elected a protagonist? What gives the BBC the right to pass judgement over and above the people of Scotland?

God forbid you might challenge the UK's right to have a "watchful eye". We have a Scottish parliament and we've voted for it; for better or worse we have an SNP Government - we certainely don't need anyone from Westminster to keep a "watchful eye" on us.

If I'm over-reacting, then please tell me. Write it in your next blog or email me (the address is given in the blog form). Because I am just not getting you or your blog at all just now.

  • 2.
  • At 12:28 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Richard the Rogue wrote:

Should the Scotland Office go? Yes.
Will it go? As the Isengard to G.B.'s Eye of Sauron, I don't think it will though.

(As an off-topic aside, did anyone else hear Wendy Alexander state that the missing Child Benefit discs were "stolen"?

A slip of the tongue, or maybe, just maybe, she knows something we don't know.)

Apologies for hijacking the thread, but I couldn't find anyone who'd picked up on it yet. Anyway, if Des Browne can hold two jobs at once, we can discuss two topics in the same thread at once, right?

  • 3.
  • At 12:57 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Chasa wrote:

There is one thing Brian, the Scottish people do not need or desire and that is a Westminster ministry checking up on them. If the Scotland office really sees that as their role then the quicker they are done away with the better. As for being a sort of embassy (what a silly analogy by the way) nothing could be further from the facts. No embassy would be allowed to spend their time attacking the government of the country in which they are hosted, as this lot do on an almost daily basis. The behaviour of the Scotland office is more akin to the dying days of Empire than a responsible government department. Get rid of them.

  • 4.
  • At 01:07 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • PMK wrote:

Great blog. Point comparing the Scotland Office to a strong embassy in particular was very good. Scotland Office is essentially a redundant structure, however there is absolutely no way that Brown or Browne will trade away their "official" right to oversee events in Scotland. An indefensible position as it does next to nothing - but public awareness is not high enough for it to matter. If it perhaps became attatched in the debate in London on two-jobs Browne - the idea could gain momentum. Though I doubt it.

  • 5.
  • At 01:13 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Ross wrote:

the taxpayer should not fund people who are keeping an eye on the democratically elected Scottish government. This is an insult to the people of Scotland.

The Scotland office should be scrapped!

  • 6.
  • At 02:13 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Conway wrote:

If the Scotland Office is behaving like an embassy wouldnt it be more appropriate to have an English,Welsh and Nothern Irish Embassy in Edinburgh ?

  • 7.
  • At 02:36 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Malcolm wrote:

The Scotland Office is really the Scottish branch of London Labour.

What comes out this place is a diet of Downing Street propaganda, Westminster invective and Whitehall intransigence.

It's an attempt to remind every Scot that we must be fearful of the British establishment.

Unfortunately it has the opposite effect.

Scots neither care nor are interested in what the Scotland Office says or what little it actually does.

You could close this place down and nobody in Scotland would notice.

  • 8.
  • At 02:41 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Gail wrote:

In otherwords a waste of time.

  • 9.
  • At 02:54 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Peter, edinburgh wrote:

Good point Brian - in fact one would have thought the new PM would welcome a bright, upcoming young Minister (not involved directly at Holyrood) to keep a careful watch on Salmond et al and come up with clever ideas on wrongfooting the SNP. An overstretched Minister involved in two difficult wars does not seem best placed to do that.

  • 10.
  • At 03:11 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • sheena wrote:

Just who are these so-called special advisers you have referred to in two successive blog entries brian ?

I understand that Wendy Alexander's spin doctors have their own blogs, but I can't find anything about these people who you must be familiar with given your praise for them.

And how is it that a part time job needs to have more than a part time political gofer ?

  • 11.
  • At 03:37 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Ed Gray wrote:

As Tory Liam Fox put it: Des Browne’s responsibilities are divided between “fighting Alex Salmond and fighting the Taliban”.

That statement is disdainful, not least to those who believe in Scottish democracy, the SNP government and the right to self-determination.

Beyond the party-political rhetoric, however, the reality will be most unpalatable for Labour supporters.

Ultimately, as always, we the taxpayer are being fleeced for the cost of one arm of Government checking up on another.

Our Holyrood representatives have been elected to put Scottish interests first, and we should expect nothing less from them.

That there should be a ‘Scottish Office’ whose role is as a Westminster-appointed Opposition to the Scottish Government is, at best, outrageous.

  • 12.
  • At 03:39 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Scamp wrote:

But Brian... Embassies don't interfere in a country's internal affairs..

  • 13.
  • At 03:43 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Douglas Anderson wrote:

As this discussion is concerning Scotland, and a part-time Scottish Secretary, I thought that perhaps there is a more important and serious matter to be considered. At present we have a Scottish First Minister who is also a sitting Member of Parliament. I always thought that the First Minister' job was important enough to be carried out on a full-time basis. Could this also be considered to be perhaps even more serious and more important to Scotland than the Des Browne saga?

  • 14.
  • At 04:00 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • EricH wrote:

Do we really want to keep D.Cairns in a job?

  • 15.
  • At 06:06 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Bruce wrote:

So we, the piublic, are paying for a labour watchman in scotland - you would think it was just after the jacobite rebellions and the blackwatch was raised - myabe a better name for the scotland office after all....

  • 16.
  • At 06:45 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • tony wrote:

I dont think it is too much for Brian to refer to A Salmond as a protagonist...that is exactly what the First Minister is doing, and what he said he would do.

Rather than working within the bounds of the devolution settlement, he is pushing the boundaries with calls for additional powers, provoking disputes and stirring up conflict - for his stated intention of seeking to demonstrate standing up for Scotland that would be better indepedent.

That is his right - and although a minority, he was elected to do just that. I happen to think that independence would not be a good thing for Scotland but that does not mean he cant use his position to make that case.

And, by the same token, the Scotland Office will have changed. Where previously departments of the government spoke to the then Executive, they are no doubt more reticent about doing that when there is a likelihood of being attacked or undermined (such as with the HSE and Salmond jumping on the oil platform fire to demand devolution of health and safety) - so they need advice from the department nearest to it.

It is also still the case that - unless and until there is independence - the Scottish Parliament is not in a position to decide on a number of policy areas, and for those it is entirely right for the Scotland Office to have a role and voice on behalf of Scotland.

It is also still the case that the Scotland Office is not like an embassy - it is a department of the government that the Scottish Executive/Government is devolved from.

Just as those in political control of the devolved government in Scotland have a right to make their political case, so those in political control of the overall government have a right to make their political case.

To suggest one is proper and the other is an outrage as most of the responses here do is sadly typical of the one-sidedness of most of the contributions on this and other feedback/comment forums relating to Scottish politics.

  • 17.
  • At 07:00 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Brian S wrote:


The Scotland Office should go, plain and simple. To imply that we Scots and our democratically elected government need keeping an eye is an utter insult.

So much for the BBC and its correspondents taken a neutral approach to journalism.

  • 18.
  • At 07:50 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Hugo wrote:

" But there are strict limits to that concept of consistent liaison. For example, Edinburgh and London used to share their advance planning diary, the schedule setting out likely news events. That stopped on day one after Alex Salmond’s election and won’t be revived. "

I had a feeling of unease when I read this. It seemed to suggest the improper use of the Civil Service for party political purposes.

Can someone give me convincing reassurance that I am wrong?

  • 19.
  • At 11:03 PM on 26 Nov 2007,
  • Brian McHugh wrote:

I think we may be missing a trick here... could we not set up a Scottish Embassy in London?

Somewhere near Trafalgar Square next to the Albannach maybe. *;o)

Tony and David, before you lose your cool completely, go and get a dictionary and look up what 'protagonist' means. Of course Alex is a protagonist in this drama. If he weren't, he'd be letting those of us who elected him down very badly.

There used to be a sign with that very message on it as one arrived from Carlisle and points South. A photograph of it could've provided the artwork at a fraction of the cost, but I noted it had been defaced once as we returned from a Southern excursion in May 0f '97.

Someone had added "Tory-Free" after the preposition. ;-)


A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.
-- Gore Vidal

  • 22.
  • At 03:05 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Medusa wrote:

If the SNP administration weren't constantly spoiling for a fight, and apparently doing their best to destroy the various channels of co-operation that have been operating between the civil service here and in London, there would be no need to 'keep an eye' on them!

#18 - glad other people are picking up on that!

  • 23.
  • At 03:58 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Peter, Edinburgh wrote:

Tony (#16) is quite right. Because they have a minority government, supporters of the SNP seem to think it is outrageous for supporters of other parties to work towards maintaining the union.

The majority of Scots in the last election voted for parties that believe in the union and it is quite legitimate for those parties to work to oppose separatism. It is a perfectly proper position to believe that Scotland's best interests are NOT served by independence.

Do Bavarians think they would be better off making their own way outside Germany or Umbrians feel they would prosper as separate from Italy. No they believe they are better participating in a greater whole with their regional neighbours. Some people north of the border believe the same!

  • 24.
  • At 04:11 PM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Ed Gray wrote:

#22 Medusa

Assuming you live in Scotland, the SNP Government is fighting on YOUR behalf, regardless of whether or not you voted for them.

Whereas the Scottish Government is directly elected by the Scottish people, the Scotland Office is an arm of Westminster, operating above the heads of the Scottish people.

What value do you place on your own right to vote if you feel the resulting administration has to be checked up on by an opposing party?

And in any case – aren’t there enough Westminster placemen amongst the Labour ranks at Holyrood???

Peter #23, there's a clear difference in principal between supporting the Union (legitimate, and, indeed, the platform Gordon Brown was elected on) and using taxpayers money for party political ends (illegitimate, even when the SNP do it, which I'll agree is not never).

However, given that distinction, the current uses to which the Scotland Office are being put are closer to 'corrupt' than to 'legitimate'. And, for a party with as much problem at present with trustworthiness as the Labour Party, that's at least a tactical own goal.

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