ALEXANDER JOHNSTON was one of the outstanding public servants of his day; a man with an extraordinary ability to tackle, with apparent ease, a series of jobs in the Civil Service which differed widely in their nature and in the problems they threw up, and which called for the display of a considerable range of skills.
Alec Johnston came from a close-knit Scottish family, and was educated at George Heriot's School and Edinburgh University. He had not been to London until he went there in 1928 to sit for the examination for the administrative grade of the Civil Service. He succeeded in winning one of the few places available, and was allocated to the Home Office.
Johnston began his career there as an Assistant Principal in the small Criminal Division which, as it happened, over a period of a few years nurtured four future permanent secretaries. After a normal progression, including a period as private secretary to the junior minister (there was only one in those days), Johnston found himself caught up in the civil defence preparations which were just being put in hand as the prospect of war loomed. He remained in this area of activity right up to and during the first stages of the Second World War, including a period rather unexpectedly spent in Leeds guiding the steps of the retired general who was functioning as Regional Commissioner there.
But in 1943 Johnston left the Home Office for good. Norman Brook (later Lord Normanbrook), who had himself started in the Home Office, in that year became the permanent secretary of Lord Woolton's new Ministry of Reconstruction. He was well aware of Johnston's abilities and recruited him to the staff of the new department which set about tackling the complicated issues arising from the Beveridge Report.
There followed two appointments which Johnston particularly relished, situated as they were right at the heart of government, and at a time of great moment. First, when the new Labour government took office, he was picked out in 1946 to help Herbert Morrison in his role of Lord President of the Council. After a fascinating couple of years in this appointment he then rejoined Brook, by then Secretary to the Cabinet, as his Deputy Secretary.
There followed, from 1951, quite a long stint as a Third Secretary in the Treasury - equivalent to Deputy Secretary elsewhere - where Johnston's keenness and ability in controlling departmental expenditure and turning down schemes which he regarded as extravagant - albeit with an ability to spot the genuinely constructive idea - would have won him plaudits from the present Government. And then, in 1958, he reached the apex of his Civil Service career when he started a 10-year period as chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue. This is not the easiest department for someone coming from outside to take over, given the complexities of the work and the specialist knowledge of the senior people there, but it was not long before Johnston was fully accepted; and indeed he acquitted himself in his period of office with great distinction.
After retirement, Johnston's work on the Monopolies and Mergers Commission the Panel on Take-Overs and Mergers, and the negotiating committee of the Universities Superannuation Scheme did nothing to diminish his high reputation.
Johnston was shrewd, decisive, and consistent in pursuing his aims. He was frank in the advice he tendered to ministers and in his dealings with his fellow civil servants; and he was a man of complete integrity. Gentle in manner, rarely showing anger, and always ready to listen to argument, he was nevertheless a determined individual and not easy to budge from a course which he thought right. But when he destroyed with devastating logic an argument which had seemed to its proponent to be so attractive, it was quite impossible, because of the way he did it, to feel any resentment or malice.
Johnston was devoted to the Church of Scotland and was an elder of St Columba's Church, in London. He set himself high standards of behaviour and looked for them in others, but never in an obtrusive way. He was an avid reader; a delightful host; and had a sense of fun, and a satirical sense of humour well-calculated to appeal to his fellow mandarins.
He enjoyed a happy marriage, and his wife Betty is herself a lawyer of distinction. They were blessed with a son and daughter, both very able, and four grandchildren. Alec Johnston was not just a remarkable civil servant. He was also, quite simply, a good man.
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