A total of 13 civil servants were still being paid to work in the Scottish Government's National Conversation, Referendum and Elections Division, even though the SNP has dumped its plans for a referendum this parliament.That breezy arrogance of Salmond and the SNP, demonstrated just over three years ago, is now thankfully a relic of the past. The SNP's defence to the Labour charges, however, is revealing:
Labour, which obtained the figures up to the end of September 2010 in a reply to a parliamentary question, said wages, pensions and other costs associated with employing the staff totalled £1.2m over two years.
The National Conversation was launched by First Minister Alex Salmond in August 2007, just months after the SNP swept to power. Mr Salmond, speaking at the launch of the campaign, said that "no change was no longer an option".
A spokesman also claimed there were now 11 members of staff employed in the unit, rather than the 13 revealed in the figures for September 2010.It's revealing because the their defence is built not on the worthiness of the "National Conversation" but on the fact that the division is dealing with a host of other more "prosaic" matters.
He said: "This is desperate stuff from Labour, who are just wrong. The reality is that the National Conversation, Referendum and Elections Division now has 11 members of staff, under a head of division who also covers another area of work.
"The division's work includes preparation for the next local government elections to ensure that there is no repeat of the problems encountered in 2007.
"The work includes a Bill currently before parliament to reform the management of local elections, procurement and testing of the electronic counting system, and preparation of the regulations governing things such as ballot paper design, proxy voting and the other detailed rules for the election. "Other work includes supporting ministers on wider elections issues, and of course preparation of the Bill for a referendum on Scotland's constitutional future.
In 2007, in contrast, it would have been more along the lines of:
"A staff of 13, never mind 11, is too small to deal with the overwhelming demand of the Scottish public for a-
1. National Conversation 2. Referendum 3. Separation. We are merely attempting to satisfy that demand".
But, as I said, in the space of just over three years, times have changed.