Row exposes hypocrisy in complaints over role of civil servants

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By G.A.Ponsonby
 
Unionist parties complaining about the ‘partiality’ of a Scottish Government civil servant are today facing claims of hypocrisy after it emerged the UK Government has already hired an ex LibDem election candidate to ‘coordinate’ Whitehall civil servants ahead of the independence referendum campaign.
 
A furious row has broken out after memos sent out by top civil servant Sir Peter Housden suggested that Scotland was now on a journey towards constitutional reform and that the Calman Commission had been rendered redundant by the SNP’s landslide victory in May.

In a memo sent out on May23rd Sir Peter said:  “This will be a remarkable period in Scotland’s history as we embark on a journey toward constitutional reform with the near-term strengthening of the Scotland Bill and a referendum in the second half of the parliament.

“It’s remarkable how the terms of this debate have changed irrevocably in just three weeks. Calman and the status quo now seem lost in the mists of time.”

The senior civil servant also recommended a play called Dusinane to staff as well as an article said to be ‘sympathetic’ to the SNP.

The emergence of the memos has led to the leaders of Scotland’s three main opposition parties writing to the head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, complaining of partisan behaviour.

However, Newsnet Scotland can reveal that earlier this month the UK coalition government appointed former Scottish LibDem candidate Christine Jardine to act as a special adviser liaising between No 10 Downing Street and the Scotland Office.

According to media reports Ms Jardine, who is also a former Herald journalist, was hired in order to ensure Whitehall departments were properly focussed on the ‘Scotland situation’ especially with the independence campaign ahead.

Ms Jardine unsuccessfully fought the Inverness and Nairn seat for the Scottish Liberal Democrats at the Scottish Parliament elections in May.

The reports also claimed that Allan Ross, a civil servant, is to manage Scottish matters at an official level within Downing Street.

According to media reports, a senior Whitehall source said the appointments were “confirmation” that the Scotland situation had to be focussed ahead of the referendum campaign.

The role of Whitehall civil servants in relation to Scotland has been questioned before.  In February this year a secret document released by Wikileaks revealed that David Middleton, the former director of the Scotland Office, had told US officials that the Scottish public had “little appetite” for a referendum on Scottish independence.

According to the cable Middleton claimed and that the economic crisis meant that “most people in Scotland now find the notion of independence ‘dubious’”, ‘Independence,’ he said, ‘is less alive than a year ago.'”

In February 2010, Newsnet Scotland revealed that then Secretary of State for Scotland Jim Murphy appeared to have used his position in order to raise his own profile in Scotland.

A Scottish Office memo at the time said: “The Secretary of State is still working hard to raise and maintain his public profile and has been doing well in the media so far. He continues to look for opportunities to promote his own position and the role of the UK Government in Scotland.”

This latest attack on Sir Peter follows a similar attack earlier this month when a House of Commons report singled out the top civil servant for criticism after £468 million was “wasted” in an attempt to centralise fire services in England.

The HoC report led to an item on BBC Scotland’s flagship news programme Reporting Scotland.