#indyref: Why there’s absolutely no reason Campbell Gunn should be fired

If you think this is somewhat late and does little but extend a nothing of a story, I get that. It was originally written last week, but I’m forgetful/lazy/distracted with GoT when it comes to uploading. Uploading is boring. Tyrion Lannister is not.

For those folk not heavily involved with the internal politics of Holyrood (“ordinary people” one might call them), there’s a good chance the name Campbell Gunn meant little to them last week. Certainly we all know who he is now, and there’s been more than a little talk of what his responsibilities and allowances are. He’s a “special adviser” to the First Minister, and in a world of blue-sky, open-field jargon, for once we find a phrase that actually means something.

According to section 4.12 of the Scottish Government’s Ministerial code, special advisers,

“…can add a political dimension to the advice available to Ministers and provide the direct advice of distinguished experts in their professional field. It also reinforces the political impartiality of the permanent Civil Service by distinguishing the source of political advice and support.”

Special advisers (“SPADs”) in other words, are there as political operatives; to do the nasty business of politicking whilst permanent civil servants get on with running the country. Whilst a permanent civil servant may tell you it’s economically best to cut the healthcare budget, as a quick hypothetical, the SPAD is there to tell you how it will play in the media, how many polling points you’ll drop and whether or not it will allow opposition parties to get one over you.

SPADs are nothing new or unique to SNP or Scottish politics either. David Cameron, George Osborne, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were all SPADs once. Between the UK Government and Opposition front benches, more than a third of the faces you’ll see started off this way before becoming bona fide ‘politicians.’ Going further back – and hold your noses as we do – Enoch Powell got his start in a very similar role.

Given this, the idea that we should expect them to be neutral governmental figures is somewhat optimistic to say the least. SPADs are party animals, and always have been.

In Mr Gunn’s case however, there is a specific act everyone is talking about this week. No one who has read his correspondence to the Telegraph seriously suggests there is any form of insult concerning Clare Lally contained within (unless of course, the suggestion that you are related to Pat Lally is an insult itself – poor Pat), but some including Conservative leader Ruth Davidson have focused more on whether it was right for a SPAD to brief the press at all.

Again, such practice is nothing new, nor is it unique to SPADs. Everyone in and around government ‘briefs’ the press, which is to say they talk to journalists. It’s fun to show off to reporters by telling them how ‘in the loop’ you are and every party operative wants the next day’s stories to be beneficial to them. Only when absolutely necessary is a government minister allowed to talk to hacks unsupervised, because often when they do, the truth accidentally slips out.

But is there anything in any code of conduct that forbids it? According to the aforementioned section 4.12, “all Special Advisers should operate, in accordance with the terms and conditions of the Model Contract for Special Advisers.”

Section 6 of the Model Contract for Special Advisers (“the MCSA”) is Ms Davidson’s favoured part of late. It states,

“Special advisers should not use official resources for party political activity. They are employed to serve the objectives of the Government and the Department in which they work. It is this which justifies their being paid from public funds and being able to use public resources, and explains why their participation in party politics is carefully limited.”

Their role is then, somewhat hazy. SPADs are recognised as political creatures, but being paid out of the public purse, they cannot be too political otherwise the formerly unimpeachable reputation of the civil service as impartial will suffer.

Section 6 goes on to note,

“They should avoid anything which might reasonably lead to the criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes. The highest standards of conduct are expected of special advisers and, specifically, the preparation or dissemination of inappropriate material or personal attacks has no part to play in the job of being a special adviser as it has no part to play in the conduct of public life. Any special adviser ever found to be disseminating inappropriate material will automatically be dismissed by their appointing Minister.”

Our emphasis. It is this latter part which Ms Davidson has accused Mr Gunn of breaking. Certainly he disseminated information, but as noted above it most certainly was not an attack. The question then becomes whether or not it was “inappropriate.” Luckily the MCSA continues and lays out very clear directives on what SPADs may or may not do in their position. Sections 10-12 specifically concern contacts with the media. Section 10 notes that contact with the media is permitted, and section 11 notes such contact must be authorised by the appointing Minister and refers us to yet another document (ever wonder why nothing ever gets done quickly in government?); the Government Communications Network’s Proprietary Guidance – Guidance on Government Communications (“the GGC”).

The GGC is a twenty-something-page set of guidelines which follow generally obvious and commendable tracks. It is aimed at permanent members of the civil service however – the words “special adviser” appear only four times – and is primarily focused with the clear barrier between official government business and party politics as far as permanent civil servants are concerned. It is therefore, rather difficult for a SPAD to be in contravention of a document which is not particularly concerned with them.

We go back then to the MCSA which is quoted above. It is easy to whip up controversy. Section 12 notes that, “Special Advisers must not take public part in political controversy whether in speeches or letters to the Press… “

Mr Gunn wrote a letter to the Press. It became a controversy. There’s your breach of the code!

Except of course, there is nothing controversial in the letter itself, there was no controversy when it was sent and the resulting furore was the result of tabloid journalism and two opportunistic opposition parties. Mr Gunn cannot then be said to be in breach of section 12.

What about section 10 though? Section 10 in full says,

“Special advisers are able to represent Ministers‟ views on Government policy to the media with a degree of political commitment that would not be possible for the permanent Civil Service. Briefing on purely party political matters must be handled by the Party machine.”

Again, you can cause a stink. Mr Gunn briefed The Telegraph on a purely political matter. He’s not allowed to do that. There! Fire him.

Side-stepping the perfectly valid question of whether a short letter to one journalist constitutes “briefing the press” because we could be here all day, Mr Gunn’s intervention was not purely party political. Put simply, the current SNP government was elected on a platform which all revolved around the idea of independence. It matters not if anecdotal evidence suggests some people voted for other policies but not that one; they were elected on that platform. The pursuit of independence became a government goal; for exactly the same reasons the publishing of the White Paper did not breach Governmental rules, neither did Mr Gunn’s communique to The Telegraph.

You could of course argue that since neither the Liberal Democrats nor the Conservatives ran on a platform in the 2010 general election based in any meaningful way on keeping Scotland within the union, that their frequent use of public money and permanent civil servants in pursuit of this goal violates Governmental rules, but that’s another post. For now we’re talking about Campbell Gunn, who did not violate the MCSA and need not be fired.

Coincidentally, there is a rumour going around that he may be the daughter of Pat Lally. Hopefully the Scottish Government will condemn this “disgusting personal attack”, because we all have more important things to talk about today.

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