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A unified civil service?

A unified civil service?

Earlier this year, the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) conducted an enquiry into civil service impartiality and referendums.

Some PASC Members questioned whether Scottish civil servants had abandoned impartiality in supporting the Scottish Government in producing its white paper on independence.

Peter Riddell, of the Institute for Government, did not see civil service support for the white paper as ‘dramatically different from what would happen within Whitehall with a White Paper or, as a topical example, with civil servants in the Department for Education on free schools’.

Opposition politicians may object to policies pursued by governing parties and supported by civil servants but the key test is whether the same level of commitment can be transferred to another party pursuing a different policy agenda in the event of a change of government.

The notion that Scottish Government officials would be unable to provide the appropriate levels of support to a different Scottish governing party or parties is fanciful.

What these exchanges highlighted was that we no longer have a unified civil service

What these exchanges highlighted was that we no longer have a unified civil service. Formally, of course, it remains unified.

But in practice, Scottish government officials serving a different party – or even the same party but different governments – may have to commit themselves to different policies from those supported by colleagues serving a UK Government. UK officials served the UK’s governing parties in making the case against independence. That was to be expected. The notion that Scottish civil servants should have offered any less commitment to the SNP’s policy agenda run contrary to good practice.

Even prior to devolution it was common for differences to exist within Whitehall.  The media covered many stories of conflicts between Ministers within the same government but each conflict was only the tip of an iceberg.

Each government department with its different responsibilities develops its own ethos and outlook even if operating within a common civil service code. At times, departments can be captured by special interests.

The old Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) was viewed as the Department for National Farmers Union.  When the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs replaced MAFF in 2002, the new ministry was known in some farming circles as the Department for the Elimination of Farmers and Rural Activity.  

But special interest capture should not be confused with the development of a specific departmental outlook.  The old Scottish Office was always known as the department for Scottish special pleading.

Departments operated within the constraints of a unified system of government of which the civil service was an integral part but it was inevitable and not unhealthy that different parts of the government machine should have different perspectives. These differences are manifested in battles over resources, priorities and indeed policy preferences.  

The key difference since the establishment of a separate Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government is that officials serving different political masters from their colleagues elsewhere in the UK.

Civil service impartiality leads to officials having to support different, in some cases diametrically opposite, policies north and south of the border. These differences are not resolved within a unified system of government or intra-governmental relations but through inter-governmental relations or allow for divergence in policy.

That difference has grown since devolution, not only because we have had different parties in power north and south of the border since 2007 but through experience. There are officials, including those in senior positions, who started their career pre-devolution. The transition to devolution for many officials was painful and difficult.

A number struggled to cope with the change but a new cohort has risen, drawing experience from a very different environment. That experience is having a significant impact on the operation of devolution.

A century and a half ago, Walter Bagehot noted that a ‘new constitution does not produce its full effect as long as all it subjects were reared under an old constitution, as long as its statesmen were trained by that old constitution. It is not really tested till it comes to be worked by statesmen and among a people neither of whom are guided by a different experience.’

The withering of the old constitution as officials (and indeed politicians) come to terms with devolved government raises questions about the unified civil service. The referendum highlighted an imbalance.  Officials’ potential partiality is constrained by an expectation that a different party may come to government.

But that constraint is largely absent in Whitehall in terms of dealing with Scottish Government led by the SNP.  The Civil Service Code needs to be re-examined to address this imbalance.

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