Obituary: Professor Peter Nailor

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The Independent Online
Peter Nailor - public servant, scholar, university teacher, intellectual entrepreneur and raconteur - was one of those erudite yet tidy-minded all-rounders whose like we may not see again in a senior civil service shaped by the performance indicator and modern managerial techniques.

His kaleidoscopic career took him from arranging the invitations to the Spithead Review in Coronation Year via a pioneering spell in the intensely secret world of nuclear weapons after the Macmillan government acquired Polaris for the Royal Navy, through chairs of both Politics at Lancaster University and History at the Royal Naval College to the Provostship of Gresham College, a post he filled until his death.

In a country where the barriers between professions have, wartime apart, remained ludicrously and harmfully high, Nailor leapt them with cheerful abandon, leaving a life- enhancing legacy wherever he landed. He never filled the very highest positions in public service or the university world (though that 16th- century foundation, Gresham College, has a very special eclat), but he left a distinctive flavour in both, thanks particularly to his great gifts as a conversationalist and an analyst of British politics in general and defence policy in particular. His deep insight was lightly worn and beguilingly transmitted.

Nailor's literary output, though small, captured this. The Nassau Connection, ready for publication at least a decade before security clearance was finally afforded it in 1988, is a fascinating account of the procurement of the Polaris system based both on the documents and on Nailor's direct experience as the administrator within the Ministry of Defence's Polaris Executive.

His Learning from Precedent in Whitehall, commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary British History and published in 1991, could only have been fashioned by someone who trod the corridors of policy-making and the paths of scholarship with equal ease.

His work on Polaris was probably the most important assignment in his 17 years in the Civil Service. The project still stands out as that rarity - an enterprise that came in on time and within the budget. Though his last posting in the MoD, as head of its post-Fulton report "planning unit", Defence Secretariat 22, suited his forward-looking and speculative mind.

Nailor's transfer to academic life in 1969 was made with brio. He made full use of his Whitehall contacts and his large flat on the roof of Lonsdale College became Lancaster's choicest intellectual salon. He was the kindest of teachers and colleagues but, perhaps wisely, he felt a need to shift from the university world before the fun was squeezed out of it by the dead weight of administration.

Nailor returned to the service of the Royal Navy in 1977 as Professor of History and International Affairs at Greenwich. He relished his exquisite surroundings and offered regular hospitality in the painted hall with a characteristic Nailorism - "Dress up for the surroundings; dress down for the food."

It was perhaps his last job, however, as Provost of Gresham College in the City of London from 1988, that saw the finest flowering of Nailor- the- scholarly-entrepreneur. It was a kind of homecoming for a former Mercers' schoolboy given the company's intimate connection with Gresham - a singular and ancient institution which has always had professors, but never students. And with a revived governing body and the superb assistance of the college's administrator, Maggie Butcher, Nailor presided over a renaissance in the fortunes and reputation of Sir Thomas Gresham's intellectual benefaction to the City of London.

Gresham College provided the ideal last setting for a man of Nailor's width and humanity and the trace of his rich, droll and modulated tones will linger long in the rafters of its Holborn home in Barnard's Inn Hall.

Peter Nailor, civil servant and historian: born 16 December 1928; First Lord's Representative on Admiralty Interview Board 1960-62; member, Polaris Executive 1962-67; Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Defence 1967-69; Professor of Politics, Lancaster University 1969-77; Professor of History, Royal Naval College, Greenwich 1977-88, Dean 1982-84, 1986-88; Chairman, British International Studies Association 1983-86; Provost, Gresham College 1988- 96; died London 5 April 1996.