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Thursday 22 December 2011

United Kingdom faces threat of break-up, warns civil service chief

United Kingdom faces threat of break-up, warns civil service chief

Outgoing cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell questions how long union can last amid growing calls for Scottish independence
Sam Jones and agencies,
Sir Gus O'Donnell
Sir Gus O'Donnell has warned that holding the United Kingdom together will be an 'enormous challenge'. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
Keeping the United Kingdom together over the next few years will be an "enormous challenge", Britain's most senior civil servant has warned in comments that were met with approval by Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland.
Sir Gus O'Donnell, who is stepping down as cabinet secretary and head of the civil service on 1 January, used an article in the Daily Telegraph to question how long the union could survive amid growing calls for Scottish independence.
"Over the next few years, there will be enormous challenges, such as whether to keep our kingdom united," he writes.
The SNP administration in Scotland is committed to holding a referendum on independence before 2016 and Salmond has said he expects Scotland to become an independent country within the European community.
In response to the comments, Salmond said: "I have always regarded Sir Gus O'Donnell as a model civil servant, who has been extremely fair in recognising and respecting the democratic mandate of the Scottish government.
"Sir Gus is right to recognise the importance of the constitutional issue, and the SNP government are up for the challenge of building and winning the case for Scottish independence – unlike the Westminster parties, who seem to have their heads buried in the sand."
O'Donnell also uses the article to argue that the civil service needs to overcome its "cultural inertia" and take a leading role in driving economic recovery.
"It is not enough now for the civil service simply to respond to a dampened economic climate: it needs to become a central part of its recovery and growth," he writes.
The outgoing civil service chief also said he believes successive governments have been too quick to address problems with regulation and legislation.
He encourages ministers and civil servants to be more creative in solving problems, urging them to take more risks and have a "grown-up approach to failure".
The cabinet secretary said civil servants had risen to a challenge set out by the prime minister to do away with unnecessary regulations, having recommended scrapping more than half of the 1,200 rules they had looked at so far.
O'Donnell also wrote of his pride over the "thorough, evidence-based analysis" carried out under the last government, which resulted in Britain staying out of the euro.
"Without that, the challenge would be substantially greater," he says.
Earlier, in an interview for Channel 4 News, O'Donnell disclosed that Whitehall had made plans in case the coalition broke up – although he said he believed it would run its full course to the next election.
"You have to do contingency planning, but I think our main scenario is that we go through to 2015," he said.
Following O'Donnell's retirement, the role of head of the civil service will be separated out from the cabinet secretary role, with Sir Jeremy Heywood – currently permanent secretary at No 10 Downing Street – taking over as cabinet secretary, and Sir Bob Kerslake combining the job of head of the civil service with his role as permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

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