Macpherson’s constitutional reforms continue

A quick one to note this Civil Service blog by Nick Macpherson, a review of a William Keegan book, and mentioned in a Tweet recently by Danny Blanchflower.

Danny picked it up to point out that this blog excuses Labour from causing the financial crisis.  This is actually not a particularly controversial thing to say in open economic discourse.  But it has become politically controversial as both the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems [wrongly, and hamfistedly] try to lay responsibility for the crisis at Labour’s door in their campaign to badge themselves as reliable fixers.

And this makes the blog an extraordinary thing.  Another instance of a senior civil servant sticking a neck out and taking ownership of a piece of advice or intellectual contribution.

It’s in the same vein, though less dramatic, as Nick Macpherson’s letter covering the Treasury analysis of currency options in the event of Scotland opting for independence, which revealed that he advised parties to the decision not to allow an independent Scotland to continue to participate in a currency union.

On that occasion, it was asserted that Nick’s intervention was justified because the break-up of the Union was an existential threat.  And somehow different therefore from all previous policy issues, on which it was proper for Macpherson to advise in private.  I found this logic to be a non-sequitur, simply on the grounds that there was no previously established and openly declared policy on personal interventions like this.  One can argue that the currency question bore on an existential threat to the Union.  But why did it follow that the civil service could be commanded, or take it upon itself to appoint one of its members to speak out?  And also presumably not to act on the behest of other parties representing groups of taxpayers, like the SNP?

On this occasion, there is no existential threat.  But Nick anyway speaks out.  I happen to agree with all that he says.  But is it right to speak out like this?  Where will it all end?  My instincts are that we should have more of it, since the UK is a small country and there is a shortage of credible and sensible reflections on economic affairs.  But if this is not done in an orderly and constituted way there are risks.  The next Government might look at Nick’s blog and think:  ‘if this is going to go on we must make sure the next Perm Sec is ONE OF US’, and we move inexorably to a politicised civil service along the lines of the US.


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4 Responses to Macpherson’s constitutional reforms continue

  1. Roger Sealey says:

    What about Mervin King’s 2012 BBC Today Lecture, when he said: “So what was the problem? In a nutshell, our banking and financial system overextended itself. That left it fragile and vulnerable to a sudden loss of confidence.”

  2. With Cameron waving around that infamous “no money left” note, the Tories can’t complain about some undesirable leaking of ideas

  3. mg1phelps says:

    I am a retired civil service economist. Like you I agree, what economist could not, that Labour did not cause the recession. But I do wonder about the wisdom of serving civil servants going public with their views. On the other hand senior civil servants have always given off the record briefings. Perhaps openess is best, or broadening the remit of the OBR to answer specific questions about the effects of policies.

    • Tony Yates says:

      Very thoughtful. My hope is that whatever happens is codified and that recruitment processes for senior staff are made robust enough to withstand malign pitiful influence.

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