Obituary: Christine Davis, CBE, public servant

Born: 5 March, 1944, in Salisbury, Wiltshire. Died: 17 February, 2015, in Dunblane, aged 70

Christine Davis CBE: Lifelong team-worker who strove for fairness and simplicity in accord with her faith

Christine Davis was a public servant whose work impacted on many areas of Scottish life. An astonishing variety of people – from applicants for legal aid to fish-farm workers and disabled students at St Andrews University – will have had their lives measurably improved by procedures and changes implemented by committees on which Christine served, and most of which she chaired.

As someone who, in her own words, “caught the committee bug”, she fashioned a rich and productive working life out of commitments which others might have found onerous or bureaucratic. Rather, she saw value in joining together with small groups of people to get things done. Everyone, she insisted, can do something; everyone can make a difference.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Christine Agnes Murison Aitken was born in 1944, the only daughter of two librarians, WR (Bill) Aitken and his wife Betsy Murison: her father, first a county and subsequently an academic librarian at Strathclyde University, was a friend of Hugh MacDiarmid and editor, with Michael Grieve, of his Collected Poems.

Christine read Modern History at the University of St Andrews (1962-6) and took a B.Ed (bachelor in education) at Aberdeen, subsequently taking up a teaching post in Cumbernauld, a new town then barely a decade old. In 1968, Christine married Robin Davis, like her father a university librarian, who was to become known for his work on Samuel Beckett; their twin daughters, Marion and Alison, were born in 1969.

From this quietly scholarly background Christine launched an extraordinarily diverse public career. It began in energy, at the time of the onset of North Sea oil and the massive 1970s’ price rise. After six years as a member of the Electricity Consultative Council north district, she became its chair in spring 1980 just as the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, on which she also sat, decided to impose an 11 per cent surcharge on those areas of Scotland’s islands where the supply was diesel-generated. This defiance of the long-held principle of equal treatment of island and mainland provoked questions in parliament and consumer protests from Shetland to Tiree. It took four months, but the Hydro-Electric Board capitulated, and Christine was named “Consumer Champion” by the Scottish Consumer Council.

Interestingly, though, she was not in favour of equality for its own sake, but in the wider cause of fairness. Four years later electricity was again in the frame, as Scottish MPs sought to introduce differential heating allowances to reflect increased costs of domestic heating in colder climates. This time Christine was firmly on the side of differentials: “We have argued, and will continue to argue, that the present system, which allows the same amount of money whether you live in Torquay or Shetland… is not helpful in the north of Scotland where the winter is longer, the weather is colder and the money, accordingly, is shorter.” This argument has proved harder to win.

As well as equality, simplicity was a guiding principle for Christine.

As chair (1995-2005) of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board, responsible for setting minimum pay and employment conditions for rural workers throughout Scotland, she introduced a simplified Wages Order, expressing pleasure that it had been reduced from 79 to 15 pages. It was accompanied for the first time by an explanatory booklet designed to help workers and employers understand the new arrangements; this is now in its 19th edition.

Her most notable public service, however, for which she received the CBE in 1997, was as chair of the Scottish Legal Aid Board (1991-8). Here her passion for good governance came fully in to play, as she sought both to make the system more efficient and to focus legal aid on those who needed it most.

Christine’s rich and varied life was tied together by the concept of stewardship. In her book, Minding the Future, she wrote “Good stewardship does not involve static adherence to the ways of the past. What matters is a firm understanding of the principles which underlie those ways.”

Though no-one could have been more committed to the ­future, history remained a lifelong interest for Christine. Having visited Russia as a student in 1965, when to her surprise her Intourist guide expressed appreciation of Quaker relief work there after the 1917 Revolution, she was thrilled to return to Moscow in 1988 as an ecumenical guest at the commemoration of the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus, [a process linked historically to St Andrew].

In July 2005 she was to be found on Inverness station, naming a locomotive “Inverness and Nairn Railway 150 Years”, in honour of the opening in 1855 of the first rail line in the Highlands; this in her role as a senior member of the Rail Passengers Committee for Scotland. And she was proud of her association with Scotland’s oldest university. She was a non-executive member of the Court of St Andrews University from 2000-8 and chaired its Equal Opportunities Committee, ensuring the university’s effectiveness in this field even before the 2010 Equality Act.

Christine’s Quakerism, which began when, aged 12, she accompanied her parents to Perth Meeting, was at the core of her life, and though she did not often speak of her faith, she wrote movingly in Minding the Future of discovering the ­Divine in the life around her, and of being in love with life, and with God.

She undertook every level of service in the local and national Quaker community, including, inevitably, serving on the ­national Stewardship Committee; her historical understanding was called upon when British Quakers engaged in their once-in-a-generation revision of their Book of Discipline, and her committee skills were invaluable as she presided over its acceptance in a meeting of up to 1,000 people. Coming originally from a Presbyterian background, her interests were always ecumenical and she was a strong supporter of Acts, Action for Churches Together in Scotland. When the new Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland was set up in 1990, she represented all the Scottish churches, and was the only woman among its six ­presidents.

One of the advantages of pursuing an unusual career path was that there was no retirement date. Christine was still pursuing most of these interests when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in early January. She died only weeks later at home in Dunblane.

She is survived by her husband Robin, daughter Marion, and three grandchildren, Caitlin, Arwen and David. Her daughter Alison predeceased her.