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Sir Nicholas Macpherson and a very British state

When civil servants hit the headlines, Whitehall breaks protocol: the Eton and Oxbridge British state closes ranks as the polls tighten in Scotland.

Ben Wray
20 February 2014
Whitehall in 1740 - wikimedia

Civil Servants don't hit the headlines often. However, even with the flood crisis, Sir Nicholas Macpherson managed to get his name into the notepad of every journalist in Britain last week with his “surprising” intervention into the currency debate. I put the word surprising in quotation marks as that has been the most common response, but a more accurate description would be 'breaking with protocol' or 'biased'.

Expressing a specifically political opinion about a domestic disagreement is entirely out-with the remit of senior Civil Servants. The politically motivated nature of the intervention is further compounded by the timing: Sir Nicholas chose to publish his letter in co-ordination with Osborne, Balls and Alexander's stage-managed cross-party declaration of opposition to currency union.

Salmond is well within his rights to take issue with Sir Nicholas's letter, particularly as he goes as far as to offer an opinion on the “spending and tax commitments” of the Scottish Government and their potential fiscal irresponsibility in the event of independence. Sir Nicholas writes:

Treasury analysis suggests that fiscal policy in Scotland and the rest of UK would become increasingly misaligned in the medium term. Of course, if the Scottish Government had demonstrated a strong commitment to a rigorous fiscal policy in recent months, it might be possible to discount this recent spending and tax commitments by the Scottish Government point in the opposite direction, as do their persistently optimistic projections of North Sea revenues, which are at odds not just with the Treasury but with the Office of Budget Responsibility and other credible independent forecasters.”

Not only is this an outrageously ideological statement to make for a senior Civil Servant as it tacitly sides with the austerity regime of the Coalition Government, it is wrong in much of its substance too.

First, where is the evidence that “recent spending and tax commitments” from the Scottish Government show a lack of rigour in their fiscal policy? This is an unsubstantiated claim, and one with little to back it up. Indeed, questions could be raised of Sir Nicholas himself in this sense. As the First Minister pointed out:

In his tenure of office since 2005, under three successive Chancellors, he’s authorised borrowing of £740 billion. Over roughly the same period John Swinney as finance secretary in Scotland hasn’t borrowed anything.”

Secondly, Sir Nicholas argues that the Scottish Government's “optimistic projections” are at odds with the “Office for Budget Responsibility and other credible independent forecasters”. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) is widely seen by other “credible independent forecasters” as a basket case on North Sea oil projections, consistently projecting revenue way below other forecasters. The Scottish Government's projections are in line with the majority of forecasters, it is the Treasury and the OBR that are the lone wolf's in this respect.

Two substantial issues are raised by Sir Nicholas's highly political statement. One is a point of observation, the other is a question.

What is becoming increasingly evident as the opinion polls tighten and unionist anxiety seeps in is a closing of the ranks amongst the British state. The usual rules of political engagement are being flouted because they see an existential threat and will do anything to defeat it. The unprecedented outbreak of unity across all three parties would be evidence enough for most of us. Senior civil servants breaking with protocol elevates this knowledge to the level of indisputable fact. The old liberal theory of the state as a neutral arena for competing political actors quite clearly does not provide an adequate framework for understanding the modern British state. The Scottish Tory Andrew Neil summed this up on Daily Politics, saying: “Why do the SNP, who's aim it is to break up the British state, not expect that the British state is going to fight back?”

Neil speaks as if there is no democratic process in place through The Edinburgh Agreement to sort this out. It's taken as given that the job of senior British Civil Servants is not simply to administrate this agreement, but to be the active fighters on one side of it. Such brazen acceptance of partisanship also raises questions of the role of senior Scottish civil servants, who remain part of the British civil service.

There is a wider question at stake here: who are senior civil servants accountable to in the political process? Whilst we can vote out politicians and subject them to at least some public scrutiny in their term in office, there is no such democratic oversight for civil servants.

Anyone who has spoken to politicians who seek sizeable change of any kind will tell you of their exasperation over senior civil servants. Whilst this may partly be a deflection tactic to shift blame from themselves, the evidence begins to stack up: why else would the chair of every parliamentary committee at Westminster ask for a parliamentary commission into the civil service?

Chris Huhne, disgraced ex-MP who can now speak freely about the state, describes the civil service as “an institution that is sick”:

A senior civil servant once told me our department was good at policy, but not at implementation. I put my head in my hands. Policy is implementation.”

The 1988 film a 'Very British Coup', based on the novel by Chris Mullin (then a Labour MP), shows senior Civil Servant, Sir Percy Browne, as the most prominent actor in undermining and eventually overthrowing a radically left-wing Labour leader, Harry Perkins. In one of the most iconic scenes Sir Percy, in the firm belief that he had forced Perkins to the point of resigning, says that whilst governments have came and gone his ancestors have exercised the real power over the state “since the middle ages”.

This is of course all fiction but the novel is based on evidence of secret service surveillance and black propaganda against Harold Wilson, organising amongst sections of the elite for a military coup including plotting to create private armies to protect the Monarchy and mystery surrounding Wilson's resignation in 1976 half-way through his third term in office as Labour Prime Minister (all of this is documented and dramatised in a BBC programme in 2006). There is also evidence of fear amongst the elite of the potential rise of Tony Benn to the leadership of the Labour Party in the early 1980's. Chris Mullen was a leading supporter and advocate of 'Bennism' as an MP, and in 1988 made a speech in the House of Commons about attempts by MI5 to undermine Harold Wilson as Prime Minister.

Whilst there is little chance of the likes of Sir Nicholas Macpherson seeing Ed Miliband as such a threat to the established order today, they are willing to come out of the shadows and into the light to stop Scotland breaking away from “their” British state.

Mullin has argued elsewhere that senior Civil Servants alongside heads of security services, judges and diplomats are:

...still mainly educated at the same handful of schools and universities and belong to the same gentlemen's clubs and freemasons lodges...many of these people are, of course, professionals who would indignantly deny that their political affiliation would in any way affect their duty as public servants and I am sure, in many cases, that is true. I am equally certain that in many other cases it is untrue.”

There is no suggestion of widespread conspiracy here. Simply that the ruling class tend to look after their own, especially in times of need. Sir Nicholas emanates from Eton College, and the referendum is evidently a time of need.

Mullin, who of course has had first hand experience in Westminster, goes on to outline widespread proposals for the democratisation of the state, which includes changing the operations of senior Civil Servants. Perhaps this may be a good starting point when forging a new state apparatus in the event of an independent Scotland.

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