Sir Max Brown: Civil servant who helped oversee the creation of the Department of Trade and Industry

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The Independent Online

Sir Max Brown was a much admired and respected Permanent Secretary in the Board of Trade and its successor, the Department of Trade and Industry.

He was born in 1914, in New Zealand. His parents were badly hit by the Depression, and Brown's continuing education depended on his ability to win scholarships. He was also mildly handicapped by a defect in one eye. With typical determination he set out to train his eyesight, and did this so successfully that those who knew him in later life never suspected the defect; he learned to play tennis, and became a powerful oarsman.

He was an able scholar – so much so that after graduating in Economics from Victoria University in Wellington he gained a post-graduate scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge. Lonely at first, in his second year he moved into a hostel where he made many friends and met Margaret Gillhespy, whom he later married. It was a happy marriage, despite the opposition of Margaret's father, who regarded Brown as a dim academic with no prospects – a severe misjudgement.

On coming down – with an MSc, though he later claimed to have been dissatisfied with his thesis – Brown found employment with the Midland Bank as an economic adviser, but shortly afterwards he was invited to join the newly created Industrial Supplies department, a government office which, throughout the war years, advised on the management of the industrial economy.

At the end of the war, he and Margaret seriously thought about returning to New Zealand, but he was offered a job in the civil service and was posted to the Board of Trade; he was not impressed by some of the older officers, who in his view were merely determined to sit it out until retirement. Brown's ability, hard work and friendly disposition soon attracted attention, and he was rapidly promoted to the post of Principal Private Secretary to the President. The President at that time was Stafford Cripps, whom Brown admired as a man of total integrity but who was an austere and distant master. He was succeeded by Harold Wilson, a very different character, with whom Brown remained in touch for the rest of Wilson's life. During this period Brown began to demonstrate those qualities that took him to the top. In all the maelstrom of the President's office, he never lost his calm grip of any situation, never raised his voice or lost his temper.

In 1949, he was promoted to Assistant Secretary and, after a spell at the Monopolies Commission he was posted to the Embassy in Washington as Commercial Counsellor. There, he experienced the condescension of career diplomats who regarded Trade as beneath them – Brown was even paid less than diplomats of the same rank. Commercial relations with the US Government could be tricky, given both the American determination to destroy the system of Imperial Preference and the British import-quota system, but Brown established excellent relations with his American opposite numbers; his success in this role was marked by the award of CMG.

On his return to the UK he was stalled for some years. But once he was promoted to Under Secretary in 1961 his talents produced a meteoric rise; by 1968 he was Second Permanent Secretary, and in 1970, on appointment as Secretary (Trade) in the newly formed DTI, he was knighted. The reckless creation of this massive Department was a traumatic experience for all concerned; Brown rode out the storm with a combination of common sense and refusal to panic which characterised his every action, and stayed almost uniquely sane in an unwieldy Department with what felt like a crowd of Ministers all with personal axes to grind, and more officials than the unhappy Head of Personnel could even begin to count.

On retirement, Brown became Deputy Chairman of the Monopolies Commission, from 1976 to 1981. He took four non-executive directorships, with John Bell & Co., ERA Technology, Ransom Hoffman Pollard, and Schroeders; the industrial economy was going through hard times, and indeed many companies eventually succumbed. At Schroeders he found it difficult at first to establish a role, finding himself initially regarded as a useful contact man (an assumption which, like others in similar positions, he regarded with some distaste); but his ability to make sense of any problem, particularly in the matter of loans to industry, soon found him usefully employed.

Even in retirement, Brown kept up his interest in current affairs. Those who visited him in his old age were surprised by his up-to-date knowledge and his shrewd questions and comments.

His later years brought some trials; Margaret had a stroke and became increasingly confused, and Brown – he would – exerted himself to keep the household going, becoming desperately tired in the process. But after Margaret's death he managed to bounce back, regaining much of his old vigour and alertness, until pancreatic cancer was diagnosed and finally took him off.

Brown was tough-minded, immensely shrewd and decisive. He was scrupulous in his relations with workmates and his easy approachability led the occasional colleague to underestimate him, a serious error. He had a huge capacity for work, great integrity, and common sense. Above all, he was reliable: always there and always on top of his job. And, out of the office, a very good friend.

Cyril Maxwell Palmer Brown, civil servant: born 30 June 1914; Principal Private Secretary to President, Board of Trade, 1946–49; Monopolies Commission, 1951–55; Counsellor (Commercial) Washington, 1955–57; Second Permanent Secretary, Board of Trade, 1968–70; Secretary (Trade), Department of Trade, 1970–74 (Permanent Secretary, March–June 1974); Member, 1975–81, Deputy Chairman, 1976–81, Monopolies and Mergers Commission; CMG 1957, CB 1965, KCB 1969; married 1940 Margaret May Gillhespy (died 2006; three sons, one daughter); died 13 August 2009.