Obituary: Sir Ronald Johnson
Wednesday 13 March 1996
Willie Ross, Harold Wilson's "Basso Profundo" and all-powerful Secretary of State for Scotland from 1964 to 1970 (later Lord Ross of Marnock), regarded him not only as a senior civil servant - one of the few to whom he always listened - but as a key policy adviser.
The Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of the Scottish Home Department had another bond of empathy - they had both fought against the Japanese during the Second World War. Erstwhile Major William Ross, of the Highland Light Infantry on the staff of Lord Louis Mountbatten, appreciated the intelligence (in a broad sense) of Johnson, a senior Intelligence officer to successive Commanders-in-Chief of the Eastern Fleet and East Indies Fleet: Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Somerville, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Bruce Fraser (later Lord Fraser of North Cape) and Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Power.
Among the many operations in which Johnson played a part was in the Eastern Fleet's attack on the Nicobar Islands in Octo-ber 1944, coinciding with the American assault on Leyte in the Philippines. For two days, under the command of Vice Admiral Power, the islands were attacked from the air and sea with negligible opposition, until the third morning when in an air battle, seven out of 12 Japanese fighters were shot down for the loss of three carrier aircraft.
Many years later when I asked Johnson if he was worried about a problem affecting the Scottish Home Department he replied simply: "Any man who had the experience of responsibilities in the Pacific does not flap on account of any subsequent event!" It was said in his modest matter-of- fact way.
While Johnson was one of the civil servants who never allowed himself to be bullied by Willie Ross, and who as a fellow staff officer Ross never tried to bully, by the same token he was wholly loyal to the incoming Conservative government in 1970. Edward Heath's Secretary of State for Scotland from 1970 to 1974, Gordon Campbell (now Lord Campbell of Croy), found Johnson "most effective and wholly agreeable to work with", and had no inkling of a special relationship with his predecessor. Both received forceful unpalatable advice from Johnson when the occasion merited it.
Ronald Johnson came of a family with naval associations. He went to Portsmouth Grammar school and won a scholarship to St John's College, Cambridge. Having passed the Civil Service exam in a year of few vacancies he did not demur at being ordered to the Scottish Office in 1935 and moved to Edinburgh, where he was to live for the rest of his life.
On his return from the war he rejoined the Scottish Home Department and in 1951 was handpicked to become the Secretary of the "Scottish valuation and rating committee" under the chairmanship of the Hon Lord Sorn MC, a man of legendary legal scholarship. Its report of 17 August 1954 acted as the basis of a local government finance system which was to serve Scotland well until the dawn of the poll tax.
Johnson wrote elegantly and his drafting formed the basis of the implementation of the central recommendation of the Sorn Committee, the abolition of house-owners' rates. Sir William Kerr Fraser, later Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Office and Vice Chancellor of Glasgow University, states that his colleagues were deeply impressed at how fast Johnson could work. He is also remembered as the Secretary of a major government committee who excused himself from one meeting on the grounds that he had to go away "to tune a virginal".
Anyone else would have been ridiculed for ever more. Not so Johnson. His colleagues knew that he had a deep interest in and talent for music. He was for nearly 30 years the admired organist of the Episcopal Church of St Columba's by the Castle in Edinburgh, and the President (1973-86) of the flourishing Edinburgh Bach Society. Lady Marion Kerr Fraser, the Queen's High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, recalled that he was admired throughout the church community in Scotland as a real musician. Indeed music was the cement of the Johnson family - his wife was organist at the wonderful "apprentice pillar" chapel at Rosslyn in Mid Lothian.
Sir Charles Cunningham, Permanent Secetary at the Scottish Office and later Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, said: "We all knew that religion was an important part of Johnson's own life. He did not obtrude his views." Sir Charles also recalled that when a chapter on the place of the Kirk in Scotland was required for a Scottish Office manual Johnson, a stalwart High Church Episcopalian, was chosen to write it.
He had many unexpected interests. He was on the board of the Fire College at Moreton-in-Marsh and one of his heroes was the 19th-century Firemaster Braidwood of Edinburgh who developed the first fire brigade in any city in the world.
On 3 March 1964, Johnson appeared with Sir Bruce Fraser, then Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Health, before the public accounts committee chaired by Douglas Houghton (now Lord Houghton of Sowerby). I asked him: "Mr Johnson, it appears that Scotland, on the whole, follows behind England. Is there any reason why this should be so?" Johnson bristled:
I do not think Scotland really follows behind England. As far as the architects and engineers are concerned there is no separate body with whom we can negotiate in Scotland and there we are parties to the negotiations conducted by the Ministry of Health. We are not behind the ministry [in hospital building] we are with the ministry in that and they take the heavy end of the work. As regards the surveyors I think that this time last year we were a very small step ahead in as much as the surveyors themselves had issued some new scale of fees as from the beginning of 1963. So, we were not exactly behind them, but we were in the position of waiting to see whether the new scale of fees which the surveyors had put out was going to be as good as what the ministry had conceded. It was already a slight advantage to us.
Ronald Johnson had become an honorary Scot, justly proud of the Scottish Office. However, it was consensus among members of the Public Accounts Committee after his several appearances before us that few witnesses were as willing candidly to admit shortcomings. He was impressive in his integ- rity and his considerable ability.
Ronald Ernest Charles Johnson, civil servant: born Port-smouth 3 May 1913; CB 1962; Secretary, Scottish Home and Health Department 1963-72; Kt 1970; Secretary of Commissions for Scotland 1972-78; married 1938 Elizabeth Nuttall (two sons and one son deceased); died Edinburgh 8 March 1996.
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