Last week the UK underwent a surprising constitutional change, and one that seems to have gone without much comment or analysis in UK media, as pointed out to me in an email from Jonathan Portes. The Treasury’s top civil servant, Nick Macpherson, had a letter made public disclosing his advice that any future UK government not agree to a currency union with Scotland. In doing this, the Government delegated to him the task of arriving at an objective view of the matter. This was novel, since usually civil servants are there to serve, privately, politicians reserving for themselves the right to decide on the rights and wrongs of an issue, and all of us trusting to the discipline of electoral politics to produce an objective, and not a political decision.
However, the tactic seems to have passed as though it were perfectly normal, and expected. This is a shame, because it is a potentially momentous constitutional change. The Government for some reason announced itself as unable, untrusted to pronounce objectively on the matter of Scottish-RUK monetary affairs. Why, is not clear. Perhaps we are to draw the inference that all the parties are too likely to have their views about currency matters clouded by the desire to preserve the Union. On what other matters should we now consider it unable or untrusted to set aside political preferences in favour of the interests of those who they serve? We are of course not told. At a stroke, the Government turned the Treasury from a machine to produce briefing for itself, into this plus an occasional (Government funded) think-tank, with murky governance and staffing arrangements. Suddenly, all other departments are now latent murky think tanks waiting to spring into action, the terms on which they might do so just as opaque as in this case.
What happened was no doubt a product of the fact that we have an unwritten constitution. As a consequence, there is little meta-legislation: legislation on the machinations of government and democracy itself. Unwritten constitutions have their advantages. These might be summarised as: if you write down the wrong one, you aren’t stuck with it. However, their costs are, analogously, that if you start with the right unwritten constitution, you aren’t stuck with it either. The deployment of the Treasury civil service as a supposed arbiter of objective economic facts came without any open political discussion. Neither Parliament, nor the rest of us that elect members to it, had any say in the matter.
Had we been asked, we might have approved. Or might not. I would have approved in principle. As I remarked in my last post, opening up the civil service in this way allows for more technocratic government where such government is appropriate, and opens up access to the analytical resources in government to the opposition. I’ve met some of the analysts the Labour Party employ. Talented and dedicated though they clearly are, they can’t hope to cover the whole gamut of policy so well as the civil service do for the incumbent. However, making this change just now had its complications. Rather than empowering the civil service, it could set it down the road of being discredited. The next Nick Macpherson letter might irritate an Opposition, and force his departure when the Government changes. Future Nick Macphersons might simply become viewed as equivalent to politically appointed advisors, and the change would have achieved nothing at all.
One of the safeguards of the status quo when we have an unwritten constitution is the media. But here this safeguard doesn’t seem to have worked. To judge from the lack of comment, one might think it was perfectly natural and expected that Nick Macpherson should have been asked to raise his head above the Treasury parapet. Why the silence? Is it because constitutional matters don’t make headlines? That can’t be the reason, because of the clear focus on the Scottish referendum itself. Perhaps, then, the lack of media commentary is because there are other constitutional priorities to discuss: Scotland. Is it that media controllers themselves are unionists and don’t want to spoil the Coalition’s masterstroke? Seems unlikely. Perhaps it’s just because civil service matters are normally not news worthy. Civil servants make it into the papers if they are caught doing something improper, being paid too much, obstructing, being Sir Humphrey-like, or engaging in courageous Ponting-like leaks. But the abstract noun of the civil service is a step too far towards the back pages. Who knows.
However, if this constitutional change slips under the Op-Ed radar it will be a shame. Personally, I agreed with every word of the Nick Macpherson letter, and thought the Treasury Paper which accompanied it was also first rate. I also think that the SNP have been reckless and deceitful in the way they have conducted themselves on the matter of the currency question. However, the rights and wrongs of this particular economic question don’t bear on the unsolicited, underhand way in which the civil service’s mission has been changed, nor the lack of framework governing future deployments. And this constitutional skulduggery deserves high quality scrutiny from the main media outlets. Not least because it begs the question: what other changes might be in store? And, ironically, it conjures the specter of arbitrary Westminster government, precisely what Scottish independence campaigners are hoping to escape.
[Update. See this comment from the Institute for Government].