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17 January 2013

2The attack on
a man who can't
answer back

Kenneth Roy

Macpherson and Housden

The two cats of Sir Peter Housden, Scotland's mandarin-in-chief, are under constant attack from Stella next door, sister of Artois, who throws herself at the Housdens' window pane in an attempt to get at them. The Housden cats are safer indoors, but their owner is allowed out on a more or less daily basis to prowl the corridors of St Andrew's House.

There he comes into regular contact with a ferocious tom cat name of Wee Eck, who has left no tile in Scotland unturned during his long campaign of terror. Yet, in a rare case of feline opposites agreeing, Wee Eck and the smoother-haired Pete appear to be best mates. Indeed it is increasingly said of Pete that, in the scary jungle controlled by Wee Eck, he has 'gone native', purring loyally at his master's every utterance.

Unlike most senior civil servants whose byword is discretion, Sir Peter does put himself about a bit. The only reason I am able to tell you about the cat wars in the neighbourhood is that he has shared this intelligence in a weekly blog distributed to his unsuspecting junior colleagues. He has also confided in them about shopping expeditions to Harvey Nicks, visits to the opera, and the price of leeks. Some of us find all this rather engaging, but in the land of the po-faced it is not universally approved.

We should, perhaps, be grateful that the permanent secretary is a charming and personable chap, an excellent public speaker, and – as our office discovered in our only direct contact with him – unusually pleasant and helpful, as well as a man of his word. But his many detractors continue to insist that he is far too close to Alex Salmond and the SNP government.

In a Commons debate this week, Alistair Darling, who is leading the 'Better Together' campaign, accused him of politicising the civil service and predicted that Mr Salmond, with Sir Peter's eager assistance, would make full use of 'the apparatus of state' – involving the improper use of public funds – in the run-up to the referendum.

These repeated assaults on Peter Housden's integrity will, of course, go unchallenged by their target. Civil servants do not answer back, as Alistair Darling knows, so the former chancellor can be as disobliging as he likes. But Mr Darling should also know that, in the only ruling that has been given by the head of the UK civil service on this delicate subject, it was made clear that it was the job of Westminster civil servants to back the UK Government's pro-union policy and the job of their Edinburgh counterparts to do the same for the Scottish Goverment's pro-independence stance.

If Alistair Darling would care to take a more balanced look at how 'the apparatus of state' (involving the use of public funds) is being employed in this clash of the mandarins, he should familiarise himself with a little-publicised group of permanent secretaries and distinguished economists chaired by Sir Nicholas Macpherson, head of the Treasury, which is preparing the ammo for the preservation of the union.

There is a conspicuous absentee from their meetings. When a Whitehall insider was asked if Peter Housden, the man who knows the Scottish scene more intimately than any of them, would be invited to join the committee, he is said to have replied: 'Good God, no, Housden would just report everything back to Salmond'. All's fair in love and war, and this is certainly not love.

It seems that, later this year, Sir Nicholas and his fellow top cats will be giving Mr Salmond and Sir Peter a tough examination paper on the economics of independence. We can only guess what the questions will be, but there was an early clue to the inner workings of the Whitehall propaganda machine last autumn when the chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, ably supported by Sir Nicholas Macpherson himself, appeared before an obscure House of Lords committee.

Danny Alexander prophesied that an independent Scotland, as a new country without a trading record, would pay a heavy premium for the money it raised in international bond markets. Sir Nicholas agreed that Scotland's borrowing costs would be higher. The civil servant then went on to cite the example of Ireland after the first world war, when it still shared a currency with the UK and was forced to cut the state pension in order to keep its public finances on track. 'That exemplifies,' he added, 'exactly the sort of issues the chief secretary is referring to'.

The perspective from Edinburgh is naturally a very different one. I understand that, at some stage in the next year, the team of civil servants working under Peter Housden will attempt to stand up a claim already circulating internally that an independent Scotland would feature in the top 10 of the world's most prosperous nations (No 7, I believe).

As poor as Irish church mice after the first world war – so hard-up that it will be forced to cut the state pension? Or positively blooming with new-found 21st century wealth? These competing visions of an independent Scotland are the work of rival teams of civil servants being paid for by us. Neither vision seems remotely plausible, but let that pass for the moment.

When Alistair Darling complains of the 'full apparatus of state' being used to back the SNP government's referendum campaign, he ignores the much more powerful apparatus of state working tenaciously against the SNP in Whitehall. Yet, we hear very little about the political partiality of Sir Nicholas Macpherson. Strange, that.

3Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review

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