Tribute to Kerr

Sir William Kerr Fraser
A tribute, University of Glasgow 24 November 2018
Kerr and the Scottish Office

  1. There are many Scottish Office people here today and I hope that I can speak for them. So, my remarks now are addressed more to those who may have only a vague idea of what life in the Scottish Office was like and of what Kerr Fraser contributed to it.
  2. He was by any standards an outstanding civil servant. He joined the Office in 1955 aged 26 and, by 1978, still under 50, he was the permanent under-secretary of state, and thus head of the Office. You don`t achieve that by waiting for “Buggin’s” turn. So, the questions are “why was he so successful, and why was he so respected and admired by staff at all levels as well as by the outside world?”.
  3. The perceptive obituary in the Herald referred to his “flinty integrity”, “wry humour” and “human face”. As a Twitter summary that is spot on. I could leave it at that, but there is so much more to say after more than 50 years knowing him as a boss, a colleague and a friend. I first worked directly to him in 1966. He was then in the sensitive and demanding job of being the Principal Private Secretary–or in modern jargon Chief of Staff to the then Secretary of State for Scotland, William Ross. Amongst the many challenges of the job was that of keeping the peace and getting the business done between the Secretary of State and his Minister of State, whose private Secretary I was. The Secretary of State was a former teacher and war veteran from an ILP Christian socialist back ground, and the Minister of State was the young, ambitious, publicity seeking and upwardly mobile former Bevin Boy Dr Dickson Mabon. They were both Glasgow graduates, not that that helped. Dr Mabon was, suspected by Mr Ross, quite rightly, of having socially liberal ideas on matters then very topical, controversial, and politically sensitive in Scotland such as divorce and abortion law reform; worse, he was suspected of having friends who were Tories and even worse, of being friendly with Roy Jenkins. Mr Ross had had Dr Mabon landed on him as Minster of State without prior consultation, as part of a characteristic balancing act of preferment by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. This looked fine on paper but in practice created endless ministerial friction, if not open warfare. As a young and naïve graduate entrant, I was caught in the cross fire. Not Kerr — to mix the metaphor, he cracked the whip and brought Dr Mabon to heel, and at the same time mitigated the effects of Mr Ross`s distrust, not to say dislike, so that an uneasy peace prevailed and, most importantly, the public business was dispatched. And in doing so, Kerr retained the respect and, as I later learned when I worked for Mr Ross, the admiration of both ministers. So it was obvious then, even to me, more than 50 years ago that he was heading for the top.
  4. Just over 10 years and four promotions later he was there. It is noteworthy that the closer he worked with ministers the quicker he was promoted. I think two words sum up his appeal to them: “integrity” and ”gravitas”.
  5. By “integrity” I mean his scrupulous adherence to the senior civil service ethic of being strictly non-political, while remaining politically sensitive. Inseparable from political neutrality is the obligation to “speak truth unto power”. That means giving frank and fearless advice to ministers, however unwelcome, and that must be followed by an unwavering commitment to try to deliver what they had decided, whether or not one agrees with it. Kerr practised that to the full. The Yes Minister TV series may have made marvellous comedy but certainly never reflected life in St Andrews House. Indeed, Kerr often told me he thought that the series did a lot to undermine ministers` trust in the civil service. As Permanent Secretary for some 10 years, Kerr served 3 Secretaries of State — one Labour and two Conservative — 5 Ministers of State, and 11 parliamentary under-secretaries. Not all of these were easy to work with but, despite what must have been some provocation, I never heard him belittle any of them to colleagues, or indeed to anyone else. I know each of the three Secretaries of State regarded him as a friend as much as a senior adviser. Some of the junior ministers were in awe of him, though that was not necessarily a bad thing.
  6. But integrity is not enough to run a department or to advise Ministers. They also look for sound judgement and good advice –both perhaps embraced by the characteristic of “gravitas”.
  7. Kerr had “gravitas” in ample measure. He believed that public service at a senior level is a vocation and not just a job, and that government had a role to play as a force for good. It followed that the role of the Scottish Office was to help Ministers make Scotland a better place. He was proud to have been Permanent Secretary in 1985 when the Office, if not Scotland, celebrated its 100 years of serving Scotland. He remained passionately interested in the well-being of the country long after he had left the Scottish Office. Even in his last days in hospital, he was concerned to have access to radio to keep abreast of current events, however much that must have depressed him.
  8. But I hear you say “Surely “integrity” and “gravitas” are what you would expect of a permanent secretary”. True–but Kerr combined them with a ferocious commitment to hard work and attention to detail, such that his qualities were soon recognised by a demanding Whitehall audience.
  9. Kerr was unusual in that he was entirely “Made in Scotland” not just by upbringing and education but also by experience. Unlike all his Scottish Office successors and most Whitehall permanent secretaries, he never served in one of the central departments such as the Treasury or the Cabinet Office. Yet his peers clearly regarded him as a heavyweight. A prime indication of this was his early elevation in 1984 to become a Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath or GCB. You may share Kerr`s reservations about the system of awarding honours to civil servants, but the GCB really is something special. It is the highest rank in an order of chivalry which is junior only to the Garter and the Thistle and is awarded mainly to the military of senior general or equivalent rank. Latterly it earned for Kerr a stall in the Henry 7th chapel in Westminster Abbey, with a banner overhead –about which he was suitably embarrassed.
  10. Kerr is the only Scottish Office recipient of the GCB in more than 50 years, and only half a dozen Whitehall permanent secretaries have been so honoured since 2000 not even including the much-praised late Sir Jeremy Heywood the Cabinet Secretary who died recently. It is also the Honour of choice to bestow on foreign heads of state. Its past recipients include Presidents Reagan and Bush (don`t tell Mr Trump), not to mention, as I liked to remind Kerr, both Mussolini and Robert Mugabe. So, it really is an exceptional honour given to exceptional people.
  11. Kerr`s standing as a senior civil servant is self-evident. But integrity and gravitas alone conjure up an austere image. What made Kerr so liked and admired was that allied to these mandarinesque virtues were his humanity and humour.
  12. I am sure later tributes will expand on these. All I will say is that Kerr was a “people person“. All my colleagues here today will remember his frequent small acts of kindness and thoughtfulness. Wordsworth in his poem Tintern Abbey says, and I quote, “The best portion of a good man`s life (are) his little, nameless, unremembered, acts of kindness and of love.”
  13. To me, that epitomises Kerr`s humanity or human face. As for his humour, he was a brilliant after dinner speaker with a wry, and often self-deprecating wit and a keen sense of the ridiculous, often best expressed in verse.
  14. So his humanity and humour made him a marvellous ambassador for the civil service generally and St Andrews House in particular. Kerr was living testimony that we, or at least he, cared and were human.
  15. So how can I sum up his life in the Scottish Office? He radiated integrity, gravitas, humanity and humour and In Kipling`s words he “could walk with Kings nor lose the common touch. He showed by example that we in St Andrews House were there to serve the public and make Scotland a better place. At a personal level, I valued his critical encouragement and support, and I am honoured to have had him as a friend for more than 50 years. Even by the time he left the Scottish Office in 1988, he had shown that he was a man for all seasons, a great public servant and a great Scot. And there was a lot more to come in the next 30 years.
  16. Peter Mackay CB
    21st November 2018
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