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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Arts and Entertainment
Ella Henderson's first studio album has gone straight to the top of the charts
music
News
<p>Jonathan Ross</p>
<p>Jonathan Ross (or Wossy, as he’s affectionately known) has been on television and radio for an extraordinarily long time, working on a seat in the pantheon of British presenters. Hosting Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for nine years, Ross has been in everything from the video game Fable to Phineas and Ferb. So it’s probably not so surprising that Ross studied at Southampton College of Art (since rebranded Southampton Solent), a university known nowadays for its media production courses.</p>
<p>However, after leaving Solent, Ross studied History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of the UCL, a move that was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of his career. Ross was made a fellow of the school in 2006 in recognition of his services to broadcasting.</p>
TV

Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new

Life and Style
fashion
News
Paul Nuttall, left, is seen as one of Ukip's key weapons in selling the party to the North of England
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Brand labelled 'left-wing commie scum' by Fox News
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC's Antiques Roadshow uncovers a TIE fighter pilot helmet from the 1977 Star Wars film, valuing it at £50,000
TV

TV presenter Fiona Bruce seemed a bit startled by the find during the filming of Antiques Roadshow

News
people

Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Sport
Steven Caulker of QPR scores an own goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool
football
Arts and Entertainment
artKaren Wright tours the fair and wishes she had £11m to spare
News
i100
Life and Style
Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh been invited to take part in Women Fashion Power, a new exhibition that celebrates the way women's fashion has changed in relation to their growing power and equality over the past 150 years
fashionKirsty and Camila swap secrets about how to dress for success
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
booksNew book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Operational Risk Manager - Asset Management

£60,000 - £80,000: Saxton Leigh: Our client is an leading Asset Manager based...

Year 5/6 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Permanent Year 6 TeacherThe job:This...

KS1 & KS2 Teachers

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: KS1+KS2 Teachers required ASAP for l...

Year 2 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Year 2 Teacher The position is to wo...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past