This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

It's only taken 13 months, but the fifth instalment of the Scottish Government’s updated independence prospectus is published today.

The relaxed stroll to the promised land says a lot about Building a New Scotland.

If a referendum were nigh, there would be a sense of urgency about the project. 

As it is, the latest volume – on citizenship and passports with different covers – ambles onto the scene in the doldrums of summer with the pace of a rain-soaked test match.

However it could well be the most interesting instalment so far. 

For which we should thank the context, not the content.

Because whether this prospectus should be getting produced at all is now the subject of an intense row between the governments in Edinburgh and London.

At issue is whether officials answerable to Scottish ministers, but also bound by the UK-wide Civil Service Code, should be working on subjects beyond the powers of those ministers. 

In particular, should they be working at the taxpayers’ expense on independence.

Humza Yousaf and his ministers say of course they should, as the SNP-Green government won a mandate to pursue independence at the 2021 Holyrood election.

Critics, including a number of MPs and peers who have been nagging the head of the UK civil service something rotten about it, argue any work must align with the relevant powers. 

So officials working for the UK Government can work on whatever is within Westminster’s writ, but officials in Edinburgh must not stray beyond Holyrood’s devolved powers.

These critics appear to have found an ally in the object of their nagging, the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, who is ultimately in charge of civil servants throughout the UK.

Last week he told peers that “civil servants must abide by the Civil Service Code and the law, and that means that civil servants in Scotland and Wales can spend their money only on areas that are within their competence”.

He is producing new guidance shortly on where to draw the line between reserved and devolved matters “because specific instances have arisen that need looking at”.

One of those instances is Building a New Scotland, produced by a department with 20 officials whose salaries cost £1.4 million a year. 

Mr Case insists it’s about protecting staff. 

“We all want to protect the integrity and impartiality of our Civil Service,” he said last week.

“That’s why I want to make sure that civil servants operating in Scotland have very clear guidance about what they can and cannot do, because they deserve, and the whole Civil Service requires them to have that protection and guidance.”

UnspunAnalysis: Will independence be on the ballot paper at the next general election?

Funnily enough, this seems to align very snugly with the views of Mr Case’s political masters, the gung-ho Scottish Secretary Alister Jack key among them.

Mr Yousaf isn’t buying it, accusing his opponents of trying to “shut down” debate on independence because they can’t muster a positive case for the Union.

But his argument that officials are only executing the 2021 election mandate is rickety. 

The SNP manifesto said there would be an independence referendum once the Covid crisis is over, preferably in the first half of the parliamentary term.

But as has become painfully obvious to Yes supporters, that was something the SNP never had the power to deliver. Nicola Sturgeon’s ruling from the UK Supreme Court proved it.

There is no prospect of indyref2 in this parliament. 

So why continue to produce a prospectus for a vote that isn’t happening?

The answer, say the critics, is so that Mr Yousaf, like his predecessor, can keep the pot simmering, pretending the dream is alive and well rather than admitting it has stalled.

In which case, the argument continues, it’s fundamentally a political campaign, and the SNP should pick up the tab, not foist it on the taxpayer. 

It’s not an unfair accusation. The First Minister virtually admitted it was a campaign himself. 

The Herald:

Asked what merit there still was in the Building a New Scotland papers, he said yesterday: “I believe that we've got to increase the political support in order to get a referendum, and the way you increase that political support is making the argument for independence. 

“That's why this series of papers has been launched.”

So there it is. The papers are about increasing political support for independence, a subject that by definition is outside the bounds of devolution.

Intriguingly, Mr Yousaf refused to say if his officials would follow the new guidance from Mr Case, suggesting an even greater constitutional row is yet to come.

...enjoyed the article? Sign up for free to the Unspun newsletter and receive it directly to your inbox every weekday night at 7pmClick here 👈