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Showing posts with label Holyrood Select Committee - membership of European Union. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Holyrood Select Committee - membership of European Union. Show all posts

Sunday, 23 March 2014

What is the Devolution Unit of the Scottish Office for? Clearly not Scotland, according to Chris Flatt and Alistair Carmichael

The Select Committee on Scotland’s membership of the European Union, chaired by Christina McKelvie MSP, on 20th March 2014 addressed the question of what exactly the Devolution Unit of the Scottish Office was actually for, and what discussion had been held with Vladimir Putin by them on Scottish independence. Alistair Carmichael, whose title is Scottish (sic) Secretary a title that is a kind of standing offence under the Trade Descriptions Actbounces the question to Chris Flatt , Director of the Scottish Office - Alistair Carmichael’s right-hand man here.  Chris will give you the civil service definition of it ..” which seem to suggests there may be another definition (?)

Chris attempts to answer it in civil service-speak, e.g.It has an outward and inward facing aspect to it..”.

Christina asks if its main role should be to extend the interests of the devolved nations across the UK to the rest of the world?

Chris flounders at such an obvious question, sensing an elephant trap, although he is not the elephant it’s designed to trap.

Chris Flatt:Well – its- its role is as I described – both ways – its role is to make sure that the interests of, eh – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are well understood ..”

Haud oan, Chris – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? This is the Devolution Unit of the Scottish Office – of which you are Director – we’re talking about. Isn’t it?

Chris Flatt: “.. in UK Government policy-making, and our position is well understood – eh – around the world: and what’s really important for the devolution unit is expressing the UK Government’s policy. The UK Government’s policy is that – eh – the UK Government’s position in a devolution settlement is the right one for the UK.”

I think we got the gist of that, Chris - despite much hesitancy and looking up and left as you groped for the words – the Devolution Unit of the Scottish Office is all about the UK. You did manage to mention UK five times in  a short reply. Those difficult words Scotland and Scottish never really got a look in, did they?

Christina McKelvie: “OK.  Could the foreign and Commonwealth Office and Devolution Unit furnish this committee with the detail of the discussions that went on with the Russian diplomat in relation to Scotland’s independence?”

Bear in mind this question is being addressed by a committee of the Scottish Parliament to the Scottish Secretary and the Director of the Scotland Office – then gauge the response …

Alistair Carmichael: “Which Russian diplomat was this?”

Christina McKelvie: “The reporter from Itar-Tass citing a source in the Prime Minister’s office that Britain was extremely interested in referendum support from Russia –the Sunday Herald then followed up on this last Sunday – a member of the FCO’s devolution unit briefed a Russian diplomat at the Russian embassy – at Russia’s request. If we can have that information …”

Alistair Carmichael affects a faintly puzzled, patronising expression, brow furrowed, eyes closed, hands folded …

Alistair Carmichael: “I’m sorry – what are we being asked to provide here- it seems somewhat inchoate …”

Now there’s a word: inchoate – useful in buying time as a slow brain struggles to process a hot potato of a question. The OED offer the following definitions and usages -

  • 1 Just begun and so not fully formed or developed; rudimentary: a still inchoate democracy

  • 1.1 Confused or incoherent: inchoate proletarian protest

  • 2 Law (Of an offence, such as incitement or conspiracy) anticipating or preparatory to a further criminal act.

Take your pick, Christina – you’re either being rudimentary and not fully formed – or confused and incoherent (you proletarian, you!) – or you’re anticipating a further criminal act (Alistair is a lawyer).

Joking aside, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s buying time by feigning a need for clarification of a perfectly straightforward question. (Remember, he had a hard time recently with the Deputy First Minister over questions and the bruises still ache.)

Christina McKelvie: “The actual details of the conversation that went on.”

(Chris Flatt looks left at his boss, distinctly uneasy at the direction of travel. (I know that body language – I’ve exhibited it many time myself in meetings with my bosses!)

Alistair Carmichael: “You’re asking me to provide detail of conversations between two people, neither of whom you name.”

Chris rides to to the rescue, as Alistair maintains his expression of incomprehension – or slow-wittedness, dependent on one’s interpretation of his expression…

Chris Flatt: “What I can give you is – I’ve briefed  officials from the Russian embassy – I’ve briefed officials from dozens of embassies …”

Stop stalling, Chris – the question was specific (not ‘inchoate’) to a widely reported discussion with a Russian official, one that many media channels chose to give major prominence. Shit or get off the pot, please!

Chris Flatt: “.. and it’s one of the - eh – eh – interesting elements of – eh – the position we’re in that we have a lot of interest from around the world in – eh – the situation in – in Scotland and lot’s of people come to me saying – what’s the position of the –eh – the UK government? And I explain that, and as a civil servant, I put it forward objectively, while setting out the UK Government’s position. I’m also careful in doing so to explain that the Scottish Government holds a different position. I briefed the Russian Embassy.

I have to say that in doing so, the – em, eh – the diplomat that I spoke to expressed great surprise at the, eh, Herald story about – eh, em – about what the Russian news agency had put forward. Em – but beyond that, it was – eh – it was a straightforward conversation about, eh, what the UK governments was doing.  I’ve has that conversation with Russian officials, American officials, Canadian, Belgian – eh – Philippines, Kurdistan, Italians – and it goes on and on …”

Alistair smiles indulgently and looks fondly at his man, as the fumbling torrent of civil service obfuscation goes on and on, hoping perhaps that the hapless Chris will name every country in the world with an embassy and a diplomat to spare, using up the time slot for this uncomfortable Select Committee and even more uncomfortable question that the Scottish(?) Secretary wants to get the hell out of as fast as he can.

Chris Flatt: “.. because everyone is interested – and I think that’s quite a good thing: it certainly puts Scotland’s position – eh, eh – much more prominently on the world stage.”

Christina has patiently endured this fumbling delivery of precisely no information at all, or reply to her specific question about the Russian conversation. She tries again.

Christina McKelvie: “Could you furnish this committee with some of that information? All the countries that have been briefed on a one_to_one basis, and what the basis of that briefing was?

Chris Flatt: “Absolutely.”

Alistair instantly senses danger – the civil service smoke machine has run out of fuel, failed to bury the question, and a commitment to provide hard information is in danger of being given!

Alistair Carmichael: “Well, actually - I don’t know that that’s really something for us to give an undertaking on ..”  (several sidelong glance to Chris, who now realises he’s made a boo-boo.)

Christina suggest it can be released under Freedom of Information.

Alistair Carmichael: .. but I mean, you’ve just given a very wide specification there …”

As lawyers would say – your man opened the door to this, by cataloguing a range of countries that have been briefed, Alistair.

Alistair Carmichael: “.. ah, and it would be for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to release information about what they have done, It’s not an undertaking I can give here ..”

Christina McKelvie: “But you’re not representing – I’m confused, absolutely confused, because I’m not sure whether, as Secretary of State for Scotland, you’re Scotland man in Westminster or you’re Westminster’s man in Scotland. It seems to have shifted back and forward all morning. So, if you’re saying we as a committee have to go to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to retrieve that information, then we will do that …”

Alistair Carmichael: “Well, I am the Secretary of State for Scotland – this is one of my  officials (with a sideways nod to Chris Flatt) – he is answerable to me. you’ve made a request for the release of information on a very broad specification from another government department. I don’t know, given the broadness of the specification you have given us, whether that is something that colleagues in government – eh – would be able to provide you with. In international relations, there might be any number of reasons why that might not be appropriate. Had you told me you were going to ask this before I came here. I might have been able to speak to the Foreign Office and get you that information ..”

In a pig’s eye you would, Alistair …

“Had you taken me up on my offer of bringing Mr. Lidington with me, he might have been able to give you the answer on the spot ..”

In a pig’s eye he would, Alistair …

“If it is possible to cooperate with your request, I shall certainly ensure that that is done. What I cannot do here today and now is give a categoric (sic) assurance on that.”

Christina McKelvie: “OK – the Committee will ask the question then.” 

Christina then give the floor to another committee member. But Alistair want out – fast …

Alistair Carmichael: “I’m sorry – we have been now been going for an hour and thirty five minutes. I undertook to be here for an hour and fifteen minutes. I do have other engagements today. I’ll be happy to come back and continue at some future occasion.”

Christina McKelvie: “Well, I think what we will do is maybe – since members still have other questions – is write to you ..”

Alistair Carmichael: “I’ll be delighted …”

Christina McKelvie: …. because I know you diary is very difficult, and it was difficult to secure this date today as well, so we understand …”

Much cordial closing exchanges of pleasantries, ending with this ..

Alistair Carmichael:

“If this morning’s discussion has illuminated nothing else, it has illuminated the enormous complexity of the situation that you are currently investigating - and,  you know, good luck to you with your investigations, because obviously, as Parliamentarians,  you have a duty to ensure that, eh, the, eh, policies and aspirations of the Executive that you are to scrutinise are sensible and realistic.  I have some concern on what I see that they are not – and you have the opportunity of course to make that clear to them. That is the opportunity of the future you have as Parliamentarians.”

With such a pompous, po-faced and patronising close, the Secretary of State  - for Scotland(?) – fulfilled every expectation of the Scottish people from this rump-of_empire office, and this incumbent of it – which is exactly nothing

I end with Christina’s original question -

Christina McKelvie: “OK. Could the foreign and Commonwealth Office and Devolution Unit furnish this committee with the detail of the discussions that went on with the Russian diplomat in relation to Scotland’s independence?”

It will never be answered truthfully, if indeed it is answered at all.