Sir Hamish has simply got to go

Whitehall has Sir Humphrey; in Scotland, he is Sir Hamish. He can be just as smooth and insufferably smug as his English counterpart but, for generations, he has had more direct power at his fingertips.

For more than a century before last year's devolution, civil servants ruled Scotland rather like colonial administrators. Ours was a country not so much governed as managed by the mandarin mentality.

Scottish secretaries and ministers of state were nominally in charge, but the politicians were in London for most of the week, and the Sir Hamishes back in Edinburgh were free to run the show their way.

When the Scottish Office was set up in 1885 by a reluctant minority Tory government, the Duke of Richmond and Gordon became the first Scottish Secretary. The administration of the natives by a combination of a powerful Civil Service and an upper-class Establishment was quite good enough.

Over the past century, very little has happened in Scotland without the influence of the "magic circle", a clique drawn from government, the law and banking.

Time was, you could set your watch in Edinburgh by the one o'clock gun and the procession of the very top civil servants along Princes Street from St Andrew's House to the New Club. If Scotland's problems could not be solved (or carved up) over lunch at the club, discussions could continue over din- ing tables in the New Town, the social round of concerts and gallery receptions, or at the weekend, in the clubhouse of the utterly exclusive Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers at Gullane, East Lothian.

It still happens, but devolution is shifting the power to where it should be. In Whitehall, it may still be "Yes, Minister" - but, in Scotland, it is "No, Sir Hamish".

The Scottish government has served notice of a shake-up of the mandarins, with more recruitment from business and industry, an end to the "old boy" ethos, faster promotion for younger Scottish civil servants who show talent, irrespective of which school they went to, and more women at the top.

And Sir Hamish will now face competition for his job. Senior posts, once internal promotions, are being advertised outside, starting with the new head of the Scottish NHS and a senior finance officer. Behind the programme, which is backed by an extra £3.6m, is the bitterness of a new administration that feels let down by the old-style Scottish Civil Service. The Scottish Finance Minister, Jack McConnell, who is responsible for the modernisation of Scottish government, speaks diplomatically of the need for "a modern, accountable and responsive Civil Service that can tackle the challenges of devolution".

This is a coded attack on a complacent culture that frustrates members of the new administration.

In the government suite of offices, there have been shouting matches. It is said that policy initiatives have been sidelined, that obvious reforms in education, health and social policy have not been pushed through, and that wet-behind-the-ears ministers have been hung out in public to dry.

The Health Minister, Susan Deacon, nurses her resentment at having to carry the can for the failure to foresee last winter's hospital crisis. The Transport Minister, Sarah Boyack, was advised by officials that the funds from her road-pricing plans could not be ring-fenced for transport improvements, then had to do a sharp about-turn. The Deputy Justice Minister, Angus MacKay, said on TV that the sex offenders' register was not a devolved matter, then sheepishly had to admit it was his responsibility.

The Education Minister, Sam Galbraith, is in the firing line over the Higher exam results chaos, which has created the worst political crisis since devolution, and may ultimately cost him his ministerial head, despite Tony Blair's support. Yet it was the product of years of work by a development unit in the Scottish Education Department.

Colleagues say that these embarrassments happened because inexperienced ministers did not impose themselves on their departments; in Galbraith's case, his "hands-off" attitude with trusted civil servants was blamed for the mistakes.

One Cabinet minister said: "Being a bunch of government greenhorns, most of us didn't know what to look for. There was no instruction book, so we had to learn pretty damned quickly that you have to keep on top of the civil servants to make sure they are doing what you want. And it didn't take most of us long to realise that many of these awesome figures were actually not all that good."

To a man - and, until now, they have all been men - Scotland's senior civil servants have been a self-promoting, protected species. They handle finance without having a real financial background, run health without being health professionals. The head of enterprise and lifelong learning is a former marketing executive whose previous job was running prisons. The head of education is a career civil servant who has worked in almost every department in the Scottish Office, with a spell at Scottish Homes and the UK Cabinet Office.

Their effortless movement between posts and clubs in Edinburgh and Whitehall made them ideal agents of the UK government, although their defence is that they always got the best possible deal for Scotland. They also claim they were instrumental in delivering devolution and welcome change, but they have clung to their pre-devolution power.

Worst of all, they have let their new political masters look foolish. For that, Sir Hamish has simply got to go.