A FORMER Treasury mandarin who became a hate figure for independence supporters in 2014 by sinking the SNP’s currency plan is to advise Nicola Sturgeon’s Government on the recovery from the pandemic.
Sir Nick Macpherson has joined a new advisory council drawing up a 10-year national strategy for the “economic transformation” of Scotland.
Finance and Economy Secretary Kate Forbes said the 17-strong group of academics, economists and business leaders would table their “bold ideas” by autumn.
After the strategy is published later this year, a smaller group will oversee its implementation.
While most of the names are uncontroversial, Sir Nick’s inclusion is bound to raise hackles in parts of the Yes movement, given his publicly-stated opposition to independence, and fuel doubts about whether the SNP leadership truly believes independence will be part of the recovery.
Alex Salmond’s Alba Party in particular is likely to exploit the appointment, as the former first minister never forgave Sir Nick for his role in the 2014 referendum.
As the Treasury permanent secretary, Sir Nick “strongly” advised George Osborne against the SNP’s plan for a currency union after independence under which Scotland and the rest of the UK would share the pound.
In a highly unusual move, his memo to the Chancellor, which would normally have been secret, was published at the time.
In it, Sir Nick said a currency union between two sovereign states would be “fraught with difficulty” and liable to fall apart because of political differences.
“I would advise strongly against a currency union as currently advocated, if Scotland were to vote for independence,” he wrote.
He also said Scotland’s banking sector was “far too big” relative to national income, leaving the UK “at risk of providing taxpayer support to the Scottish financial sector
The SNP’s estimates for North Sea oil revenue were “persistently optimistic”, he added.
It led to Mr Osborne giving a speech in Edinburgh which was seen as a turning point in the referendum campaign.
“If Scotland walks away from the UK, it walks away from the UK pound,” the Chancellor said in February 2014, ensuring the Yes campaign was dogged by questions about currency and economic competence all the way to the vote.
In 2015, Sir Nick defended his action, saying that in an “extreme” case, when “people are seeking to destroy the fabric of the state”, the usual rules of neutrality don’t apply.
He also said the “strong recurring conclusion” of the Treasury team was that independence was against the best interests of Scots.
Weeks later, Westminster’s Public Administration Committee concluded Sir Nick’s letter to the Chancellor was only made public “because it suited ministers’ political objectives in respect of the Scottish referendum” and had “compromised the perceived impartiality of one of the UK’s most senior civil servants”.
Angus Robertson, now the SNP Constitution Secretary, said in response: “We expect the highest standards from senior civil servants and Sir Nicholas Macpherson and the Treasury fell short.”
Mr Salmond also accused the Treasury under Sir Nick of “nefarious activities”.
In his diary of the referendum campaign, The Dream Shall Never Die, the former FM said Sir Nick had “radiated hostility” towards him in 2011 and been apparently willing to “abandon any vestige of civil service neutrality” in 2014. He called Sir Nick’s defence of his actions a “rant”.
In June 2015, Mr Salmond witheringly told the Commons: “Despite the fact that the UK civil service should have been neutral in that 28-day period, that was not the case, particularly of Sir Nicholas Macpherson.
“I notice that his knighthood has recently been enhanced in the recent honours list – let us all congratulate Sir Nicholas on his extra honour for services rendered.”
However, Sir Nick became more acceptable to the current SNP leadership when he said a year later that the Brexit vote had made the case for independence stronger.
Also on the new economic advisory council are Lynne Cadenhead, chair of Women’s Enterprise Scotland; Chris van der Kuyl, founder of video games giant 4J Studios; Dame Sharon White, chair of John Lewis Partnership; Mark Logan, CEO of Skyscanner; STUC general secretary Roz Foyer; Professor Graeme Roy, head of the Fraser of Allander Institute; Highland Soap company founder Emma Paton; and economist Mark Blyth of Brown University.
Other than Ms Forbes, who chairs the group, the only politician is Cllr John Alexander, chair of Scottish Cities Alliance and the SNP leader of Dundee City Council.
Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon both say independence should be a key part of the economic recovery ahead, however Sir Nick’s presence will raise doubts about whether Ms Sturgeon truly believes it will be.
s Forbes said: “As we emerge from the pandemic, we must work together to seize Scotland’s potential and build an economy for everyone by delivering greater, greener and fairer prosperity.
“The pandemic has led to fundamental shifts in sectors such as retail, and changed the way many businesses operate with more online trading and remote working. We need to build on these innovations and guide our economy to the industries and opportunities of the future.
“Our 10-year National Strategy for Economic Transformation will utilise the expertise of business, trade unions and economists to deliver a focused plan of actions and projects to help transform our economy and help us reach net zero.
“I want to thank the members of the council for agreeing to play such a crucial role in the development of our bold and ambitions 10 year economic strategy. Starting work to deliver this key strategy was a 100 day commitment of this Scottish Government and I am delighted we have been able to secure the support of so many leading experts.
“To ensure this strategy delivers the transformational change Scotland needs, this must be a national endeavour and so we want to hear directly from business, workers, and stakeholders from across the country.
“This is a an invitation to the entrepreneurs, thinkers and job creators to join our national endeavour and work with us to make Scotland thrive.”