Sir Norman Graham: Civil servant who led the Scottish Education Department through a period of change and expansion

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s the Scottish Office had the justified reputation of being run by a group of formidable, if austere, civil servants of great calibre who had no hesitation in presenting awkward and sometimes unpalatable facts to ministers – with whom they had generally an excellent and mutually respectful relationship.

In 1967, over dinner, on a two-day delegation of MPs visiting nuclear installations, I had the opportunity to say to the chairman of the Atomic Energy Agency, Sir Charles Cunningham, who had been Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Office before being chosen as Permanent Secretary of the Home Office, "Do you ever regret leaving Scotland?" "No," said Cunningham. "The Scottish office contains a number of outstanding colleagues," and he singled out, among a few others, Norman Graham.

For nine years, from 1964 to 1973, Graham led the Scottish Education Department during a period of great change and expansion. He earned the respect of the effective, if demanding and difficult, Secretary of State, Willie Ross, who had been a teacher pre-war and knew and cared about education.

Born in Dundee, the son of a marine engineer who was for the most part away at sea, Graham went to the rigorous High School of Glasgow and on to Glasgow University, where he obtained first class honours in Classics and went on to gain first class honours in History and entry to the civil service.

Soon after he arrived he was plucked out to be the Private Secretary to the powerful, hugely effective, but extremely bad-tempered Permanent Secretary Sir William Murrie. On account of his tactful handling of Murrie he was chosen to be Principal Private Secretary to the new Minister for Aircraft Production, Churchill's choice and friend Lord Beaverbrook, an explosive character and owner of the Daily Express at the heart of the war production machine.

Shortly after he arrived Beaverbrook bawled, "that man I want sacked." Graham had the task of explaining to him that "that man" was a civil service Under-Secretary and that civil service rules forbade him as a minister to sack a senior civil servant, without a huge process. Beaverbrook came to admire Graham and chose him for an exceedingly delicate task – to go to the United States in 1940 and persuade the Americans to transfer to Britain the contracts for aircraft which they had made with the French. Graham had wanted to volunteer for service in the Royal Navy but it was pointed out to him that it was far more important to have someone of his ability to get hold of American aircraft than to sail the high seas as a sub-lieutenant. In 1942, when Beaverbrook was succeeded as Minister by Sir Stafford Cripps, who had returned from being ambassador to Moscow, the minister was delighted to retain Graham as his Private Secretary.

Graham recounts in his memoir of working with Cripps how on the first day he arrived early at the office. Cripps arrived less early and found on his desk a pile of papers four inches thick which Graham had placed before the incoming minister. Two and a half hours later the minister's bell rang. "I have read all these papers," said Cripps, and then he paused, "I see a look of surprise on your face, young man, that I should have read all these papers. You can interrogate me. I have digested all the important points." And so he had – and was destined to succeed Hugh Dalton as Attlee's second Chancellor of the Exchequer.

It was the opinion of a number of Scottish civil servants of yesteryear that from Beaverbrook and Cripps Graham learnt to think wide and big thoughts. But he was no stuffy civil servant. He used to recall the awkward situation in which he found himself at the Air Ministry. Pilots had been assembled to hear their work praised by the politicians and be given a moral boost. One of them took a fancy to one of the ladies in an important unit of the ministry. They were later discovered in "high jinks" on the Air Ministry roof. What was Graham's solution? To sack the lady? No. To recommend to the minister that her unit be transferred to another building with a sloping roof and not a flat roof.

At the end of hostilities Graham chose to return to Scotland and join the Department of Health. His colleague Archibald Rennie, later a distinguished Secretary of the Scottish Home and Health Department but then Private Secretary to the Minister responsible for health, Commander Tom Galbraith, told me how much his boss came to rely on the good sense of Graham. "Graham was outstanding," Rennie told me. "He was a man of intellect, method, and imagination."

In 1956 he became assistant secretary of the Scottish Home and Health Department, having been an expert on housing as well as health. Shortly after I was elected to the House of Commons for West Lothian in 1962 I went to the Secretary of State, John Maclay, with the problems of the huge Bangor Hospital in West Lothian which served central Scotland. Maclay (later the Viscount Muirshiel) said to me, "as you are not playing politics in my opinion, I will ask you to see my senior civil servant, Norman Graham."

At the meeting I was hugely impressed by his detailed knowledge of the burns unit that was to be set up at the hospital, of the difficulties between two prima donna surgeons and above all of his knowledge of Bangor village hospital for the mentally ill. Doing what society could for the mentally ill was one of Graham's causes.

In 1964 he was promoted to preside over the Scottish Education Department. From personal knowledge from my father-in-law Lord Wheatley, who chaired the committee into the teaching profession in Scotland, I know how impressed he was as a high court judge with Graham's abilities. They became great friends, their friendship enhanced by all the day-to-day work that did together when Wheatley chaired the Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland between 1966 and 1969.

Graham was to receive honorary degrees from Heriot Watt University and from the University of Stirling. With good reason: he was a key figure in nursing Stirling through its difficult infancy, which led to the excellent university it has now become, and in the transition of Heriot Watt from famous technical college to university.

Graham was a master of detail. The dean of the Faculty of Humanities, the distinguished economist, Professor Tom Johnston, who was destined to become Vice Chancellor, said in presenting Graham with his degree as Doctor of Letters: "under his leadership the Department of Education is a lively and stimulating centre of analysis and action."

After referring to Graham's national role as an assessor for the University Grants Committee, Johnson concluded, "perhaps we can borrow from Chaucer his description of a knight, as someone who loved chivalry, truth, and honour, freedom and courtesy, to suggest that in these virtues we sense not only the quality of knighthood but also the values which we are seeking to nurture and sustain in the whole sweep of our educational process."

Graham enjoyed a hugely successful marriage for 61 years to Catherine Strathie, and even after he became a nonagenarian he was fit for a round of golf on the East Lothian courses.

Norman William Graham, civil servant: born Dundee 11 October 1913; joined Department of Health for Scotland 1936, Principal Private Secretary to Lord Beaverbrook and Sir Stafford Cripps, Ministers of Aircraft Production, 1940-45; Assistant Secretary, Department of Health for Scotland, 1945; Under Secretary, Scottish Home and Health Department, 1956-1963; Secretary, Scottish Education Department, 1964-1973; CBE 1961, Kt 1971; married 1949 Catherine Strathie (two sons, one daughter); died North Berwick 25 February 2010.

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