As director of the Scotland Office, Alun Evans is in charge of Whitehall’s efforts to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom. Joshua Chambers meets the man coordinating a vast campaign encompassing most departments
Some civil servants tend towards delivery; others may tend towards strategy – but Alun Evans is one of Whitehall’s troubleshooters. “A lot of people say that,” he admits. “I’ve worked in 10 departments over the past 25 years, and I’ve done quite a lot of what you’d describe as short-term troubleshooting.”
Back in 2001, Evans ran the secretariat for the inquiry into the government’s response to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. That report has guided Cobra’s thinking on how to tackle future crises, he believes, and proved helpful when the disease returned in 2007.
Working as John Prescott’s director of strategic communications must also count as troubleshooting; or at least, it must have been troublesome keeping the famously outspoken politician on message. And earlier this year, Evans ran the secretariat of the Detainee Inquiry, which was investigating MI6 involvement in torture and extraordinary rendition.
Now, Evans is dealing with his thorniest problem yet. As director of the Scotland Office, he’s in charge of Whitehall’s efforts to persuade the Scottish thistle to remain within the British bouquet. His department may be small, but his remit is anything but: until the 2014 referendum, he’ll be going to all major departments requesting evidence and assistance to help persuade the Scots to stay.
The big issue
“If you ask the prime minister what his top priorities are, after issues with the economy and the euro, Scotland and the defence of the union is one of the top issues which he wants to be remembered by,” Evans says. “Our department is absolutely central to that priority in a way that, in the past perhaps, the Scotland Office wasn’t.” The department only has 60 staff and, until recently, being secretary of state for Scotland was a part-time job. But now the issue of Scottish independence is important to the whole of Whitehall.
The questions raised by the referendum are huge, and each requires departments to gather vast amounts of evidence. Take foreign policy: “Would an independent Scotland have the same benefits in terms of relationships with the EU or the USA?” Evans asks. Teams of lawyers on both sides of the debate are poring through international treaties hunting for answers.
Also important are predictions of the economic challenges a new nation would face: “We can argue about [the value of North Sea] oil receipts and so forth, but they’ve got an economy heavily reliant on income from energy, so that would make receipts into its economy more volatile,” Evans says. Further, Scotland has “big challenges in terms of an ageing population: demographics suggest that they’ll have more older people, and already because of decisions made by the government on things like funding of long-term care they’ve got a lot of costs”.
Undoubtedly, the Scottish government disagrees with Evans on all of these issues and the many more areas of discussion. But both sides are only just beginning to marshal their arguments and allies.
Stay or go now?
The preliminary negotiations to set out the terms of the referendum have now concluded. Evans supported the Scotland secretary, Michael Moore, who was negotiating with Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister. There were five or six meetings and phone conversations: the areas of disagreement were narrowed down through “good, old-fashioned negotiation” and then, in October, the Edinburgh Agreement set out what Evans calls the “rules of the game”. Importantly, he adds, Whitehall won through on its three non-negotiable points.
First, there’s only going to be one question in the referendum, which will be on whether Scotland should become an independent nation or remain a part of the UK. The Scottish government wanted to have a third option on the ballot: that of greater devolution of powers from Westminster to Edinburgh.
Second, there will only be one referendum held on the topic. The Scottish government cannot run another referendum on the same day (it had wanted to simultaneously ask whether people would like to see more powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament). And third, the referendum has to be run by the end of 2014. “The first desire of the UK government was to get this done as soon as possible,” Evans explains. “The Scottish government wanted it done later, and in the end we agreed that the end of 2014 would be the cut off.”
There are still issues, however, that remain in the hands of the Scottish government – such as whether the franchise is extended. “They were very keen to pursue the idea of 16- and 17-year-olds being able to vote, and what we said in the end was that, if they want to, it will be for their government and their Parliament to go through that process,” Evans explains. They can only extend the franchise for this referendum, though, and “it would be very expensive and at their expense”.
The wording of the question is also up to Scotland; although as with any vote in the UK, the independent Electoral Commission will rule on whether it is an appropriate one. The Scottish Government wants the question to be about whether voters “agree” that Scotland should become an independent nation, but Evans believes there may be an issue over whether seeking agreement is too positive a phrasing.
The phoney war is over
While quibbling continues over the referendum question and franchise – albeit now in Scotland, and without UK government involvement – the war drums are beginning to beat. In Whitehall, there are 13 different ‘workstreams’ (see box below) which between January and October next year will provide evidence and arguments for Scotland staying within the UK. The working groups are tackling a panoply of issues that would affect an independent Scotland, such as currency, defence, welfare, health and culture.
This work is distinct from the overtly political campaign for a ‘no’ vote, which is being funded and led independently of Whitehall. “There are some very strict rules on the funding of campaigns,” Evans notes. However, the 13 workstreams will “inform the debate”, he adds. “Inevitably, because the UK government is in favour of keeping the union together, the workstreams will look at why we think it’s better that Scotland stays within the United Kingdom.” The Scottish government is doing its own parallel piece of work, he believes, with 16 workstreams on why Scotland should be independent.
The overall programme of Whitehall work is being coordinated by Nick Macpherson, the permanent secretary of the Treasury, while Treasury deputy director Paul Doyle is in charge of the day-to-day management. Cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood has an oversight role, because the issue is such a priority for the prime minister. Meanwhile, on the political side, chancellor George Osborne chairs both a dedicated constitutional cabinet committee and the Scotland cabinet committee, which has the Scotland secretary as its deputy chair.
Already, Evans is in touch with some departments on a weekly basis to gather evidence. For example, on the morning of our interview, he was at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. “There are going to be a lot of events in 2014 which I’m sure people will want to use to showcase their particular view on Scotland,” he explains. “The Scottish Government is very proud of hosting the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup, and it’s the 100th anniversary commemoration of the First World War.”
While the Treasury is heading up the workstreams, the Scotland Office is working on how the evidence they gather can be deployed.
This gives Evans a rather unconventional role: while he is accounting officer for both the Scotland Office and the Office of the Advocate General – Scotland’s chief legal officer – Evans spends much of his time meeting with other departments. “I am the eyes and ears of the secretary of state across Whitehall, engaging – hopefully effectively – with key departments,” he says. “In some ways it’s unlike another departmental role where you’re in charge of the whole department. You are, but you’ve also got to juggle balls in the air and try to keep the secretary of state and the junior minister informed about what’s happening across the piece”. Evans believes he was given the role, in part, because he has worked in a number of departments and has strong contacts across government.
The Scotland Office is organised according to themes, with civil servants given outward-facing roles to liaise with other government departments. “There aren’t many of them – we’re spreading our resources quite thinly – so it’s quite a challenge to shadow the Ministry of Defence if we’ve only got three or four people looking at the MoD,” says Evans. He’s even taken on some of the themes himself – including culture, where he’s stepped in because the Scotland Office can’t spare anyone else to shadow the DCMS.
The department will have to implement spending cuts set out in the Autumn Statement, too, so “we’ll probably have to go down by a few [staff]; the resources are a big issue when you’re trying to run one of the key strategic priorities of the government.” Therefore, Evans isn’t just looking for Whitehall to provide evidence: departments will also be expected to provide resources too.
Departments are going to be hearing from the Scotland Office “a lot more than they did in the past,” Evans says. “For some departments, we’re in touch with them certainly weekly.”
The big challenge in 2013, Evans believes, will be to “roll out and deliver on some of the key facts, the key arguments, using the Treasury-led programme to provide evidence.” So government will be “making our case, getting up there in Scotland, arguing the case at ministerial level, with stakeholders, in communities, to say why we think it’s important that Scotland should remain within the United Kingdom”.
To that end, Evans will be figuring out a communications plan for the next 6-12 months. The Scotland Office has a small communications team, but he also chairs the cross-government strategic communications group on Scottish independence, which includes people from the Treasury, Number 10, and the Cabinet Office.
He believes the key points for good strategic communications are that the UK must have a “very clear narrative – what is the script? – but I’m also keen on how we position that communication in a way that is meaningful to the Scottish people. You don’t want to talk about [the union] in general terms; you need to talk about what it means in terms of the benefits to the Scottish people.” For example, “how many people will benefit from investment by the MoD in building aircraft carriers?” Further, he wants to develop digital communications and social media efforts, and work with the regional press of Scotland rather than limit communications to the key Westminster players.
The Scotland Office will be using other departments’ communication teams to help get its message across, he says, because when it comes to expenditure and staffing in this area, his department is definitely the underdog. “We’ll be fielding far less than the Scottish government in terms of numbers. The Scottish government has many more people than us,” he says. “I don’t know how big their comms team is, but it’s probably ten times as big as ours.”
The second area Evans is working on is “stakeholder engagement”, which “is probably the one area where we need to up our game”. The Scotland Office is trying to win over key players in all sectors of the Scottish economy, from banking and finance to oil, gas, agriculture, industry, the arts, sports and higher education. Evans and his secretary of state are meeting with these players to persuade them to back the union – although the Scottish government is also meeting with the same people. Evans hopes that sympathetic businesses and industry groups will make supportive statements at key points over the next 18 months.
This referendum presents the UK civil service with an unusual predicament. Officials are accountable to ministers, and the Scottish government and the UK government are diametrically opposed on the issue of independence. Therefore, while there’s one civil service, there are two rival teams, which must retain friendly relations but also campaign furiously against one another on behalf of their democratically elected masters.
An article in the Daily Telegraph in October claimed that there had been a breakdown of relations between Whitehall and Sir Peter Housden, the head of the Scottish Civil Service. Evans says he read the article, but when asked whether it was accurate, says: “I don’t know.” Asked how often he meets Housden, Evans says: “I meet him now and again; I spoke to him last week on a particular issue. But on the whole, I deal with his DGs like Ken Thomson. If Peter wants to speak with me, if I want to speak with him, I can get him. And I used to work with him, so I know him anyway.”
As well as formal contact between the two sides, “there’s a lot of informal contact”, Evans says. “One of the things I should stress is that, at civil service level, we get on perfectly well. It’s just like negotiating with another department: they have their political masters who have a particular view, we have ours; and the job of civil services is to work behind the scenes, both formally and informally, to make sure these things work. I think we do it pretty well, on the whole.” However, Evans does admit that there are “tensions”; these, he adds, are “inevitable” (see news).
Into the limelight
It’s uncommon for civil servants to find themselves written about in national newspapers, but Sir Peter Housden is regularly mentioned in the broadsheets – especially the Daily Telegraph. Is Evans worried that he will also become a public figure? “I’m not worried; it’s something that may happen, to a greater or lesser extent,” he replies. “I quite enjoy getting out and about; and actually, one of the things I have to do is get out and about, because I can’t leave it all to just one secretary of state and one junior minister.”
Evans has already appeared a couple of times in front of the “tough, probing” Scottish Affairs Committee and, when it comes to accountability, says: “I’m a fan of select committees, always have been. There’s nothing wrong with scrutiny, and if you can’t answer questions – wherever they come from – it means your arguments are not strong enough”.
One area where he is, however, unable to answer many of my questions is on his previous job working for the Detainee Inquiry. It was “not the most satisfying of jobs because it wasn’t as lively and as high-profile as this one, and by definition it was behind the scenes,” he says. The inquiry was cut short because the police began their own investigations, and so only an interim report was sent to government. This “raised the preliminary findings of our 18 months of work, and identified what the questions would be for a future inquiry, which the government has said they’re committed to doing once the police enquiries are underway”.
Evans is also a fellow at the Institute for Government, and is working with famed Whitehall historian Peter Hennessy, writing a PhD on the history and changing nature of private offices over the past 50 years. Private offices have grown as communications challenges have increased, he says, and “the other interesting thing in my view is that 50 years ago, the civil service was far more powerful: you had no special advisers; no outside political communication people; very few think tanks”. These days, a private secretary “must be much more flexible, much more politically aware, much more politically attuned, fast-moving, able to juggle many more things in the air at once, as well as being able to be first port of call to a minister to ensure that the ministerial businesses run well”.
The academic role looks set to remain a part-time pursuit for Evans, though. The Scotland Office job will be two years of constant challenge, and he’s keen to stay in the civil service after that. One thing’s for sure; his next job will have to provide a pretty big challenge to match the one Whitehall’s troubleshooter is currently tackling.