John Ferry John Ferry

Why is Scotland’s civil service promoting SNP propaganda?

First Minister of Scotland Humza Yousaf launching the fourth 'Building a New Scotland' prospectus paper (Credit: Getty images)

The SNP Scottish government has rolled out its latest paper on independence, this time focused on citizenship. Like others in the series (this is the fifth paper on secession in twelve months) it offers nothing new, goes big on fantasising about a future that won’t happen, and is completely removed from the day-to-day needs of Scots.

The paper works off the assumption that an independent Scotland will be a member of the European Union. Yet it ignores the obvious economic and potential political impediments to this happening, at least in any reasonable timeframe.

The appropriateness of civil service resources being used in this way is questionable at best

It also assumes that an independent Scotland will be in the EU but with an opt-out from the Schengen Agreement, which provides for completely unrestricted movement of people between member states. With this opt-out secure, an independent Scotland will continue to be part of the UK/Ireland common travel area, the paper again assumes.

It might be the case that all of this could happen, but to assume it definitively will is a stretch. Particularly so when respected figures like Professor Gavin McCrone, former chief economic advisor to the Scottish Office, are sceptical. In his book from last year, After Brexit, The Economics of Scottish Independence, McCrone pointed out that under an independent-Scotland-in-the-EU scenario some control over population movement between Scotland and England would ‘seem inevitable’.

So let’s not rush to assume that those new Scottish passports the SNP are fantasising about won’t be needed at Gretna. The possibility of having a highly antagonistic government in power in Edinburgh or London in the immediate aftermath of secession alone puts the assumption of free movement on shaky ground.  

There was a time when the SNP was the group that put its time and resources into producing papers aimed at imagining the possibilities for an independent Scotland. In 2018, the party brought out a lengthy paper making the case for secession and speculating on what an independent Scotland might look like. It was entirely proper for the SNP to do this.

Today, Scottish civil servants have found themselves in the position of producing updated versions of this material. With no prospect of another independence referendum happening anytime soon, the appropriateness of civil service resources being used in this way is questionable at best.

A look at the Scottish government’s official Twitter feed also shows how Scottish civil servants now appear to be producing blatantly party-political content. One recent promotional video asks viewers to imagine building a ‘different future’ that is ‘wealthier, fairer, happier’, before going on to suggest that the mere act of Scotland becoming a small independent country will make this happen. In reality, any evidence-based approach to assessing the economic outcome of secession tells us the Scottish economy and Scottish government budgets would be smaller after separation from the UK.

To get a sense of how unusual this activity is, imagine if, in the build up to the Brexit vote, it had been the UK government rather than the Vote Leave campaign which had put out promotional material claiming the NHS will be £350 million per week better off after Brexit. More accurately, imagine a pro-leave UK government putting out that sort of material years before a referendum was even planned, as it worked to get support for Brexit to a level where a referendum would be justified. This is the equivalent of what the Scottish government, using civil service resources, is doing now.

The inappropriateness of this has been noted in London. Simon Case, the head of the civil service, told the House of Lords Constitution Committee earlier this month that he is looking to issue new guidance to civil servants in Scotland clarifying in what circumstances it is appropriate, and in what circumstances it is inappropriate, for them to operate. ‘They [Scottish civil servants] deserve that protection,’ he said.

It is right for Case to do this, even though the SNP are already relishing the chance to turn it into an us-against-them battle to protect the nation from nasty outsiders. The professionalism and impartiality of Scotland’s civil servants needs to be fought for. It is ironic, as it so often is when dealing with nationalism, that those who shout most about loving their nation are the ones most willing to damage that nation in pursuit of their political aims.