Sir John Garlick

Civil servant charged with the problems of Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1974-77
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The Independent Online

Motivated perhaps by political panic, between the elections of February and October 1974 Harold Wilson's government turned turtle and decided to endorse the notion of the creation of a Scottish Assembly, which until then the Labour Party had vehemently opposed. No one had thought the concept through, least of all the Prime Minister. Ted Short, Leader of the Commons (now Lord Glenamara), was put in nominal charge, the real ministerial work being left to the mercurial classical scholar Gerry Fowler, Minister of State in the Cabinet Office and MP for the Wrekin. A constitutional unit had to be formed. Looking around for a bright, upcoming civil servant due for promotion, Wilson and Short alighted on John Garlick, an expert on transport who had made a distinguished contribution at the National Economic Development Office in 1962-64.

Like the ministers in matters of constitutional affairs relating to Scotland, Garlick had to start from scratch. Hardworking and loyal, he did his best for Short and Fowler, but was reduced to asking the next minister in charge, Harold Wilson's chum the Oxford don Lord Crowther-Hunt, "Are you sure that you really want to do this?" - this being the formation of a subordinate parliament in part, though only part, of a kingdom which above all they wished to keep united. On being given the Government's assurance that they did indeed wish to pursue this policy as a political imperative, Garlick went about the task as best he could.

Vividly I remember him sitting in a civil-service box behind the Speaker's chair night after night enduring immensely long speeches from myself, George Cunningham, the MP for Islington (and the author of the Cunningham amendment requiring 40 per cent endorsement for the Government's constitutional plans), and Enoch Powell, with occasional help from a young red-headed Welsh MP by the name of Neil Kinnock.

Towards the end of the 47 days when we kept the House of Commons chuntering on while Jim Callaghan and Denis Healey tried to put the economy right I ran into Garlick in the cafeteria late at night. He said that at first he had been exasperated by the pedantic nature, as he saw it, of the devolution critics. However, he had been reading Morley's great Life of Gladstone and the problems of the "ins" and the "outs" in Ireland, and had come to the conclusion that there was no answer to what Enoch Powell had dubbed "the West Lothian question".

Garlick earned the gratitude and huge respect from the ministers who inherited responsibility from Short, Fowler and Crowther-Hunt, namely Michael Foot and John Smith, who was winning his political spurs as Callaghan's attorney putting forward the devolution case. When I wrote in John Smith's obituary for The Independent in 1994 that, unlike Donald Dewar, Smith did not wholly believe in Scottish devolution and certainly never gave his mind to the mechanics of the problem from the day that it was defeated in the House of Commons in 1979 until the tragic morning he died, Garlick commented to me he thought that I was probably right. His impression was that Smith was doing the job because it was asked of him rather than because he believed in it.

Sir Michael Quinlan, who was brought in to help in the constitutional unit, told me that Garlick had come to see the huge difficulties for the Westminster parliament of Scottish and Welsh assemblies, and the chickens that are coming home to roost now the Government has less of a majority. In the autumn of 1979 I ran into Garlick in the street and asked him, "How's life?" His reply, with his wry smile, was, "It is a great relief to come home to the Department of the Environment and bury myself in the problems of urban planning and transport." He paused. "Though you gave me a torrid time and many late nights, it is an experience that I would not have missed!"

John Garlick was born in Edinburgh, the son of a tax inspector. His family were transferred to various posts on promotion but settled in Essex where he went to Westcliffe High School. At 16 he joined the Post Office technical department, serving at Dollis Hill, where research vital to the war effort was being undertaken. He also studied for an engineering degree at London University.

In 1948 he transferred to the Ministry of Transport and in 1959, the break that led to his distinguished career, he was chosen by the Minister, Ernest Marples, to be his Principal Private Secretary. Albeit he had to work like the proverbial beaver all hours, Garlick found Marples a most congenial and dynamic Conservative minister and exhilarating at a time when the motorways were being built. Promoted to Assistant Secretary, he was plucked out by the National Economic Development Office. From Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Transport, and later at the Department of the Environment, he became Director-General of Highways and was immersed in the planning of the M25 when he found himself, a tabula rasa, placed in the constitutional unit.

In recognition of his service, Garlick was chosen by Peter Shore, the Secretary of State for the Environment in the Callaghan government, a very discerning man himself, as his Permanent Secretary in 1978. To have a man of such quality as Garlick was very fortunate for the incoming Conservative Environment Secretary, Michael Heseltine. In particular Garlick was deeply concerned with urban regeneration, which chimed with Heseltine's determination to help Merseyside. Informed political opponents such as Shirley Williams, now Baroness Williams of Crosby, in 1981 a Social Democrat MP, speak most highly of Heseltine's energy - this was greatly augmented by Garlick's leadership of the Department of the Environment.

Michael Heseltine first worked with Garlick as a junior minister at the Department of the Environment from November 1970 until 1972. He says:

I came to have a huge regard for John Garlick. At the end of the decade, I became Secretary of State for the Environment, and, like every other incoming cabinet minister, had a foot-high pile of guidance given to me from the department, telling me - as every one of my colleagues was told - that I was the best thing since sliced bread. On receiving this, I put through a phone call to the Permanent Secretary, reminding him of our previous working relationship, and inviting him to lunch at the Connaught Hotel. On the back of an envelope I had written down the agenda that I wanted, before paying attention to the foot-high departmental suggestions. To his enormous credit, and ever loyal, when I left the department he gave me back the envelope. He had put ticks against most of my requirements, indicating those that he and the department had carried out.

When Garlick was given a knighthood in 1976 the press rang up his devoted wife and asked her for a comment. Frances Garlick told them not to be silly, the whole story was nothing she knew about and they had got it wrong. Such was John Garlick's sense of propriety that he didn't even tell his wife that he was to be awarded a knighthood before the proper time, which was the publication of the honour in the official gazette.

In retirement he used his energies to great purpose as a member of the London Docklands Development Corporation, where he won the golden opinions of the former Labour Chief Whip and MP for Bermondsey, Bob Mellish. He worked hard for the Newham Community College as the chairman of their finance committee, having acquired the expertise not only as a senior civil servant and accounting officer but as a director of the Abbey National Building Society.

Another great interest was the battle against alcoholism, in particular increasing drunkenness and related illness among young women. From 1985 to 1996 he was chairman of Alcohol Concern.

Tam Dalyell