Sir Patrick Nairne: Civil servant who had key roles in the DHSS and the Ministry of Defence

He was always curious about what you thought, and never forgot anyone's name

Patrick Nairne played a big role in the life of this country in the second half of the 20th century. Having served brilliantly during the War he joined the Admiralty after Oxford and stayed for more than 25 years. As a civil servant he held crucial positions in the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office, and ended up as Permanent Secretary to what was then, in 1975, the huge Department of Health and Social Security. He went on to have a second career as an effective, much-loved and ethos-setting Master of St Catherine's College, Oxford.

He had artistic interests and skill, as shown by the collection of his watercolours that hangs in St Catz and his chairmanship of the Society of Italic Handwriting. He and his wife, Penelope Chauncy Bridges, created an artistic dynasty: one daughter, Fiona, is a part-time calligrapher; the eldest son, Sandy, Director of the National Portrait Gallery; Andrew is Director of Kettle's Yard, his twin James Director of Art at Cranleigh School.

Born in 1921 into a military family (his father was a retired Lt Col who taught art at Winchester), he was educated at Radley College and University College, Oxford. His undergraduate career was interrupted by the War; after demob he took a first in Modern History in 1947 and was made an Honorary Fellow in 1981.

Commissioned into his father's regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders, he fought at El Alamein, where the job of the 5th Seaforths was to make it possible for sappers to make gaps in the minefields so the tanks could get through. Nairne was wounded in Tunisia, though he mended in time to rejoin the Seaforths in July 1943 for the invasion of Sicily. On 13-14 July he went beyond the lines to identify the enemy's strong points at Francoforte, allowing the Seaforths to push on with their advance, for which he was immediately awarded the MC.

He joined the Admiralty in December 1947. One of his first tasks was to see that there were sailors available to work in the London docks during an unofficial strike. From 1958-60 he was private secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty. For a time he was private secretary to Denis Healey, when as Defence Secretary he was rethinking the shape and functions of the Armed Forces. At the MoD from 1967-1973 Nairne was first Assistant Undersecretary of State for Defence then Deputy Under-Secretary, and worked closely and supportively with the Minister, Lord Carrington.

He played a pivotal part in the struggles to integrate the separate, fiercely proud and independent branches of the Army, Royal Navy and RAF into a modern, unified Armed Service. Healey wrote that Nairne “turned out to be the most perfect choice for the most difficult two years of my service as Defence Secretary, when I was taking my most important decisions on equipment, commitment and strategy ... Unfailing courtesy and a pretty wit made him a joy to work with.”

The reason he was so good at this job, as at all his later ones, was his capacity to listen. Whether dealing with a stubborn old admiral, a set-in-his-ways general or a callow schoolboy, he patiently listened with apparent eagerness to hear what you had to say, seldom interrupted and never condescended or patronised. He always seemed genuinely curious about what you thought, and never forget anyone's name or circumstances.

He inspired real affection, partly because of his sparkling conversation and interest in your contribution to it, partly because he radiated affability and kindness. In MoD negotiations he was effective though young; somehow those on the other side always knew they were dealing with someone who had experienced danger and shown bravery and initiative. In 1973 he became Second Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office. his two years taking in the power cuts and three-day week. As head of the Cabinet's civil contingencies unit part of his job was to keep the emergency services functioning. He also dealt with the first referendum on joining the EEC.

Nairne did not return to the MoD as expected in 1975 but was promoted to head the Department of Health and Social Security, a nightmarish conglomerate whose structure alone took hours to understand and communicate. He was knighted that year and made GCB on his retirement in 1981, when he also mused in a radio interview on the conflicts between politicians in a hurry to get things done and the civil servants whose job is to see that projects are brought to fruition thoroughly and properly.

Could Sir Patrick have been the model for Sir Humphrey Appleby in “Yes Minister”? His family will only allow that he “may” have offered “advice” to the BBC. During his tenure he was responsible for the inspired appointment of Mary Warnock as chair of the trailblazing committee of inquiry into human fertilisation and embryology, and his continued interest in the subject led to him chairing, in 1991, the Nuffield Council on Biothethics, which reflected on questions raised by the genome project.

It was a tough act to follow Alan Bullock, founding Master of St Catz, as Nairne did in 1981. But this is like no other Oxbridge college. First, it is a masterpiece of Modernist architecture and a congenial environment for someone with so developed a visual sense that he always travelled with his watercolours. And it is a particularly civilised college, whose fellows' interests and origins are varied, as are those of its students. His seven years as Master were a time when college traditions were being born, and its excellence and geniality owes a good deal to him. On retiring, seeking to distance himself and the college from the effort made by some of his dons to grant a fellowship to Mrs Thatcher, and having unsuccessfully campaigned for Edward Heath to become University Chancellor, he chaired the Advisory Board of Modern Art Oxford.

He served as a member of Lord Franks' Committee to review the Falklands conflict in 1982; as a Government monitor in Hong Kong in 1984, assessing local reaction to the agreement to hand over to China in 1997; and in 1984 he called on civil servants to let at least five years lapse before taking jobs with firms with which they had had dealings during their careers:“I did not think it would be right for me to take a job in the pharmaceutical industry or the medical equipment industry, and certainly not in the tobacco industries, simply because I had had a good deal to do with that part of the private sector.”

In 1987 he chaired the Institute of Medical Ethics' working party on the implications for the NHS of Aids. Active in Church politics, he was a Commissioner from 1993-98. And as he'd been such a success at Oxford, Essex University made him Chancellor (1983-97).

Patrick Dalmahoy Nairne, civil servant, and Master of St Catherine's, Oxford: born London 15 August 1921; CB 1971; KCB 1975; GCB 1981; married 1948 Penelope Chauncy Bridges (three daughters, three sons); died Banbury 4 June 2013.

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