ALEX Salmond unveiled his first team of Government special advisers at the end of May 2007, a couple of weeks after he was formally voted in as First Minister.
Back then the main focus of attention was their youth. Apart from the late Sir Neil McCormick, then 66, and Noel Dolan, a spritely 52 when he first strode the corridors of power, all were under 40 and three were whizzkids in the twenties.
A young, dynamic crowd, then– and only six of them full time.
It was all in stark contrast to the previous crowd, the dozen spin doctors and advisers who were working for Jack McConnell's administration, at a cost of £772,000, by the time he left office. Mr Salmond's slimmed-down operation cost just £425,000 and seemed to symbolise the exciting new Scotland his election promise.
All that was a long time ago.
This week ministers hired three new advisers, taking the total to 13, the highest ever at Holyrood. The wages of spin have spiralled to £933,000, another all-time high (though those same spin doctors quickly calculated that, allowing for inflation, they were earning slightly less than Lord McConnell's lot).
The mood of optimism has been replaced by cynicism, with Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Tories complaining wearily that the First Minister is amassing a "army" of taxpayer-funded advisers in the run-up to the referendum.
Their moans didn't end there. As revealed in The Herald, the Government is hiring a new, high-powered, £87,500 per year director of communications and ministerial support. The move effectively upgrades the Government press office, which is currently run by a civil servant at deputy director level, and means officials responsible for communicating ministers' messages will work more closely with those who run their offices and assist them on a daily basis.
It's hard not to conclude that the press operation is moving even closer to the heart of government.
Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, believes this is yet more evidence of the "politicisation" of the civil service. He has already complained about the creation of an external affairs directorate within the civil service, which he regards as an embryonic "foreign office", and about training sessions helping officials deal with awkward Freedom of Information requests delving into the Government's plans for independence.
He blames Scotland's top mandarin, Sir Peter Housden, for failing to protect the political neutrality of the civil service (a concern not assuaged by Sir Peter's occasionally-leaked internal briefings which, to some, have appeared rather too enthusiastic about independence).
His view, in essence, is that while the SNP has a mandate to hold a referendum it does not have a mandate for independence, so it is inappropriate to spend public money campaigning and preparing for it.
Is he right? Well, this is certainly an administration with highly sensitive political antennae. Journalists will tell you it's now routine for a phone call to an impartial civil service press officer to be returned by a politically uninhibited special adviser. The Government's increasingly creative ways of thwarting Freedom of Information requests have also not gone unnoticed.
But as for Mr Rennie's main gripe, it's less clear. Civil servants exist to do their political masters' bidding and people can have been in no doubt about Mr Salmond's core policy when they voted SNP.
It matters little, in any case – the picture is not going to change between now and 2014. That should be food for thought for the pro-Union parties as they think ahead to the referendum. In a week when they were accused of being complacent, of plotting and planning for the 2016 Holyrood election rather than concentrating on the independence poll, it's clear that SNP ministers are focusing ever more keenly on that moment.
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