Time for rules on referendums

Published: 23 March 2015
The Public Administration Committee’s new report on the referendum focuses on two issues: the role of the civil service in helping to produce the Scottish Government’s independence white paper; and the action of Treasury Permanent Secretary Nicholas MacPherson in making public his advice that a currency union should not be countenanced. The committee criticizes both.
 
In my own evidence, I was less critical. Some of the criticism directed at the Scottish civil service seems to derive from the very idea that they are helping a ‘separatist’ government. The committee seems to have accepted that it is their role to support the government of the day. Another element is that the civil service were being partisan. Civil servants in Scotland were in fact very conscious of the minefield that the referendum presented and generally did a good job in keeping themselves out of the political fray. I did insist that any restrictions on the role of civil servants should apply equally to both governments
 
A third element, which the committee does criticize, is that the white paper contained party policy on substantive issues and not merely proposals for independence. There is some merit in the argument that the paper on independence should have been confined to the topic on the ballot paper. On the other hand, the whole argument hinged on the viability of an independent Scotland and how this might be assured. The argument that civil servants do not produce proposals based on party programmes seems curious, as that is what they (quite properly) do all the time. Last week the civil service helped to produce a Government budget, which can only be treated as a Conservative election manifesto given the proximity of the General Election. They have even helped to produce another one for the Liberal Democrats (but not the other parties).
 
On the MacPherson advice, I did note that this was a constitutional innovation but that I believe that more civil service advice should be made available in general as is the case, for example, in New Zealand. As it appeared to be confined to the narrow issue of the currency, it might just have passed as technical advice. Had I known what we have now learned from MacPherson’s lecture The Treasury and the Union at the University of London in January, I would have been harsher in my criticism. He does appear to have stepped well beyond the limits of the role of a civil servant, expressing strong opinions about the whole independence issue and defending the right of the civil service to take sides. As he put it, ‘Her Majesty’s Treasury is by its nature a unionist institution. The clue is in the name.’ This seems to take the argument a step further, ignoring the neutrality of the monarchy, the fact that Her Majesty is head of state of a number of independent Commonwealth countries and the SNP’s intention to retain the monarchical union. It is another example of the unthinking assumption in London that to support the No side is somehow not political and that different rules apply north and south of the border. This is unfortunate, as some of the Treasury analysis on issues of expenditure and currency made a serious contribution to the debate.
 
In the committee hearing, I was a little puzzled about why a unionist-dominated committee should be so exercised about this until the hidden agenda emerged. Eurosceptic MPs are looking to a future referendum on the EU, in which the Treasury might be expected to make strong arguments against withdrawal, while claiming that this is purely technical advice.
 
The referendum is now becoming an established part of our political system, at least where constitutional matters are concerned. We are going to need rules setting out just what civil servants can and cannot do. On that the committee is certainly right.

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