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Sir William Scott Douglas, civil servant

 

 

 

 

Sir William Scott Douglas, (20 August 1890–17 February 1953), a civil servant, was born in Edinburgh, the elder child and only son of Daniel Douglas, solicitor, and his wife, Margaret Dougal. William Scott Douglas (1815–1883) was his grandfather. Douglas went to George Heriot's School and Edinburgh University, where he won the Lanfine bursary in economics (1911) and graduated with second-class honours in history (1912). In 1914 he passed into the first division of the civil service, in which his career was astonishingly varied. He had a natural talent for administration and could turn his hand to any administrative task without becoming deeply involved with the subject. What fascinated him was negotiation and management of both people and things; at these he was superbly good.

Douglas started in the customs and excise department, but in 1920 he was appointed financial adviser to the Allenstein plebiscite commission which dealt with adjustments to the frontiers between East Prussia and Poland. There he attracted the notice of Sir John Bradbury, principal British delegate to the reparation commission in Paris, whose private secretary Douglas became on first joining the delegation. He greatly enjoyed his period in Paris, becoming a fluent French speaker. Customs and excise, to which he returned in 1926, was never his spiritual home, but in those days civil servants were seldom consulted about their wishes. However, in 1929 he transferred to the Ministry of Labour to face the tremendous problem of unemployment, as divisional controller for the midlands (1931–3), for Scotland (1933–5), and as an assistant secretary (1935–7). In 1937 he became secretary of the Department of Health for Scotland, where he was a popular chief and did a great deal to bring the department into the administrative structure of the service and to lay the foundations of its future.

In 1939 Douglas moved to the Treasury as third secretary in charge of the establishment division, succeeding the greatly loved Sir James (Jimmy) Rae who had done so much to make the service one service and so enable it to take the strain of war. Douglas was probably not at his happiest without his own machine to manage; the endless struggle to keep the fast expanding departments amenable to some kind of financial discipline in pay and complements hardly suited his style. The story goes that he settled one battle with his old Scottish department by playing for it at golf; probably the Treasury came off best since he was a scratch performer. His major contribution in the Treasury lay in the planning and manning of the new departments needed for war, and in starting the ‘exchange and mart’ by which the Treasury sought to place experienced men where they were most needed.

In 1942 Sir Andrew Duncan returned to the Ministry of Supply and picked Douglas to replace the permanent secretary, who was ill. The two made an excellent team. Douglas was both adviser and friend to the minister, and under the two of them the department worked both hard and effectively. It was a difficult ministry to manage, because of the nature of some of the individuals with whom he had to deal, and his personal skills were both necessary and effective.

In 1945 came Douglas's last and longest job, with his transfer to the Ministry of Health, where Aneurin Bevan was setting up the National Health Service. There his gift for negotiation proved invaluable. It was not the detail, even the purpose, of the health service which absorbed him, but getting it across. It was an immense help that he got on extremely well with the, to him, new world of the medical profession and all its auxiliaries. Less personally involved than either the minister or the departmental officers who were closest to the operation, he could often smooth over difficulties or suggest a solution to an impasse. Surprisingly, given their different backgrounds and views, he and Bevan had a comfortable and productive working relationship. Douglas considered Bevan the best minister he had ever worked for; Bevan returned the compliment by specifically mentioning Douglas in his speech to the House of Commons on the tenth anniversary of the National Health Service. On the housing side he took a great interest in the building of non-traditional houses.

When in 1951 the housing and local government side of the ministry joined with the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, and the health side became a separate ministry, Douglas stayed with the health work but retired later in the same year. He acquired several directorships and particularly enjoyed one at Slazengers, for golf was always a ruling passion. He was chairman of the civil service preparatory commission which investigated the form the public service should take under the proposed federation of central Africa, whose draft report was published in 1952. He was appointed CB in 1938, KBE in 1941, KCB in 1943, and GCB in 1950. He was also awarded the American medal of freedom (with gold palm) in 1947.

In 1919 Douglas married Vera Paterson, daughter of George Macpherson Duffes, chief assistant keeper of the Sasines in Edinburgh, whom he had met while she was still at school. They had two daughters and took care that both should be born in Scotland. His retirement promised to be as varied and active as his civil service career, but was cut short by his death on 17 February 1953, at the hospital, Rye Street, Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire. He was survived by his wife.

 

 

 

 

 

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Last modified: Saturday, 18 March 2017