An official of the golden generation

A collection of the late Sir Patrick Nairne’s writings provides a fascinating counterbalance to breathless accounts of recent events, says Sir Richard Mottram
Patrick Nairne painting in the early 1960s

By Sir Richard Mottram

04 Apr 2022

The historian Peter Hennessy has championed a golden generation of civil servants recruited in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and at the top in the 1970s and early 1980s. Sir Patrick Nairne, who was permanent secretary of the department of Health and Social Security from 1975-1981, was a shining example. He went on to make further contributions to public service.

Today’s civil servants may at first sight feel this was all a long time ago. We have all become used to breathless accounts of life inside government appearing with the briefest of intervals after the events described. This book is the opposite, both in its exploration of a full and rewarding life and its reflective nature, and is all the better as a result. 

Moreover, readers with a broad interest in history will benefit, as well as those interested in public policy issues that Pat Nairne addressed in ways that are still relevant. The book is also a portrait of a marriage and of family life. While he was the epitome of the conscientious civil servant, he had wider interests in art and watercolour painting in particular, and these too are reflected – including in illustrations of a number of his paintings.

I had the good fortune to work briefly under him in the Ministry of Defence in the early 1970s when he held the top defence policy job, and remember his excellent relationship with then-defence secretary Lord Carrington. Many of the pieces in the book illustrate his ability to marshal and present complex issues cogently, in the best civil service tradition, which was so valued by ministers. In the 1960s, he had served as private secretary to the then-defence secretary Denis Healey. As Healey wrote in a letter of thanks when he left his office, “management has always been uniquely a Nairne forte”, which added to his appeal for ministers, while it may be a worrying comment about the rest of the civil service at that time.

So what led to this book now and why its title The Coincidence of Novembers? The book essentially consists of pieces written by Nairne at different times now brought together and presented in chronological order in phases of his life: from family history and school days, through his service in the army in the Second World War, his truncated period as an undergraduate before and after the war, to his career in the civil service, and to his life after leaving the civil service. This material is all skilfully linked together by the book’s editor, one of his sons, Sandy Nairne. The “coincidence” refers to the way in which significant staging posts in his life seemed to occur in Novembers in particular.

For those interested in military history, there are characteristically modest descriptions of aspects of his service as an intelligence officer in the Seaforth Highlanders, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. 

For those interested in the debate over civil service career paths, having entered the home civil service in 1947, he was posted to the Admiralty, which was later merged into the MoD. After a variety of postings, all in the area of naval policy (as well as a period absent with tuberculosis), he became Healey’s private secretary in 1965 and left on promotion to what would now be termed director level in 1967, aged 46. This was a different career path to some today, including in expectations of promotion and depth of expertise in departmental business. 

For those interested in public policy, there is much of interest. Examples include that he had headed the European Secretariat in the Cabinet Office at the time of the first referendum on membership of the European Economic Community and much later he chaired a commission on the conduct of referendums whose findings are explored here. He was, too, a member of the Franks Committee on the invasion of the Falkland Islands and writes in a fascinating way about their controversial conclusions. 
A less happy coincidence than those described in the book was that its initial publication in 2020 was swamped by the impact of Covid. It merits visiting now, in less fraught times – in Covid terms, at least. 

Sir Richard Mottram is a former civil servant who served as a permanent secretary in four departments


❱ The Coincidence of Novembers: Writings from a life of public service by Sir Patrick Nairne
❱ Edited by Sandy Nairne
❱ Published by Unbound 


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