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Finding the question

Until I looked further into the matter, I had always attributed the phrase, "Two countries divided by a common language", to Winston Churchill. It seems to make sense as he seemed to be referring to his parents, father English, a mother from the United States.

But it seems I shall need to update both my database of quotations and my memory.

Mr Google has taken me to the information that in The Canterville Ghost (1887), Oscar Wilde wrote: "We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language". He also takes me to the suggestion that George Bernard Shaw said, "England and America are two countries divided by a common language".

The question as to which of Wilde or Shaw originated the phrase, if either did, seems to remain open. I do note that Wilde has a clear claim to 1887 while Shaw's writing career came somewhat later. So I plump for Wilde.

Unless Churchill started using this phrase when he was thirteen years old, he has to cede ownership of the phrase.

This is merely a precursor to what attracts my attention today. The dismissal, that's the only word I think I can use, of an expert civil servant, the top civil servant, from the UK's professional team.

The very words "professional" and "expert" now seem to be being expunged from the vocabulary of UK Government politicians. It's been coming for a while. Michael Gove said in an interview with Sky News in August 2016 that "people in this country have had enough of experts".

I have sat next to Michael at Turriff Shows on a couple of occasions. At a personal level, I have found him quite engaging. And have not personally heard him repeat that message. But he seemed to find it somewhat difficult to articulate his disagreements with others. Even with me a backbencher in a devolved Parliament. Clearly, he and I take very different views on a wide range of political issues. He gives me the impression of listening but not hearing. As someone described it of another and in another context, "he is hard of heeding".

But his 2016 words have not gone away. And for the moment at least, they have put experts aside. That's the message of firing the UK's Cabinet Secretary.

Despite having a degree, a modest one, in a specific subject, I regard myself as being interested in almost everything. I am a generalist and proud of it. I, therefore, seek to deploy my analytical skills in listening to and understanding experts in their field.

When we came into Government in 2007, we had not a single minute of previous ministerial experience between the lot of us. It would have been perverse not to have asked for the advice of civil servants steeped as they were in their specialist area of knowledge and administration.

We didn't wait long. The election had been on Thursday third of May. The result was statistically clear. We had a plurality of one. There were 47 SNP members and 82 of other parties. But the political outcome was not.

We did not, because of the rules, have the Irish option of an election in February and the formation of a Government in late June.

Our MSPs met within about 40 hours of the last result being declared - Saturday at 1005.

With us was the senior civil servant who had come prepared with an analysis of our manifesto, an estimated cost for implementing it, and draft proposals for some early legislation.

With that legendary neutrality, the civil service had prepared for every likely outcome of the election. And for some unlikely ones.

Our Group had entered the room in some excitement after winning the most seats, but carrying considerable uncertainty about "what next?".

The civil servant added to the steadying influence coming from our political leaders. We could see a practical way forward. All that we needed was to get the politics sorted.

The worked-up proposals brought into the room were not Holy Writ, or wholly writ for that matter. The experts provided evidence to be challenged. The responsibility for the decisions, clearly that of Ministers. My first meeting on our Government's first Bill, my first Bill, took place before the month was out. Without the experts' preparations, it would have been many months later before meaningful progress.

Not long after that, I found that working out the questions was more important for a Minister than knowing the answers.

The problem of rust in the cables of the Forth Road Bridge, opened in 1964 and with a planned service life of 100 years, had been known for some time before the election. The need for a response to the problem was now in my intray.

Civil servants arrived with pictures of alternative designs for a replacement crossing. As someone who is an engineer, albeit not a civil engineer, poring over such detail was engaging. The design essentially had two pillars rising from the firth below to join to become one at the top. In the space between the legs was a two-lane carriageway. And hung outside each, were three lanes. A total of eight lanes.

The first question could have been asked by my eight-year-old god-daughter. What are all these lanes for? The outside lanes I was told are for the existing traffic carried in the 1964 bridge.

The inside two lanes were to be built in case we needed a light railway. This meant trams, to cross from Edinburgh to Fife. Probably knowing our Government's antipathy, not against trams per se, but certainly against the Edinburgh tram project, they used the words "light rail" rather than tram.

Part of the discussion also focussed on what the future of the 1964 bridge would be. Its problem was the volume and weight of traffic. It had not become incapable of carrying any traffic.

I, therefore, asked why, if required, we couldn't put the tramlines on the "old" bridge. We looked at that Minister. You can't put a railway on a suspension bridge because its sways about under load and because of wind they said.

So there are no tramlines on suspension bridges anywhere in the world? I asked. I then requested their previous research into this subject. After a couple of weeks, it transpired that no formal documentation of any previous research could be found.

At this point, I drew their attention to a tram across the Tagus estuary in Lisbon - on a suspension bridge. I keep my eyes open when on vacation. But by now they conceded that, yes, a tram could be put on the old bridge.

That couple of questions saved us £1 billion. The two central lanes were removed from the design. But my mind was focussed on other questions. The ones I would be asked in Parliament about why we were proposing "spare" lanes.

I needed the experts. But I also needed to able to challenge them with my questions.

So how are UK Ministers going to get on with fewer experts close to their decision-making? The Trump White House may reveal the answer. Very badly indeed.

It's hard work getting your mind around complex questions presented to you by experts. But it is much worse just to rely on gut instinct or the last person you sat beside at a political fundraiser, for advice.

As they say in law, of an accused who conduct their own defence, their advisor has a fool for a client.

The convergence of methods of Government between the USA and UK, perhaps no longer divided by a common language, is something I find critically alarming.

Give me expertise over ignorance every day.

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