Obituary: Sir Gordon Manzie KCB, civil servant

Sir Gordon Manzie. Picture: Contributed
Sir Gordon Manzie. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 3 April, 1930, in Edinburgh. Died : 24 September, 2014, in Harlow, Essex, aged 84

Andrew Gordon Manzie was a most unusual civil servant, a youth who began his career straight from school as a clerical officer then rose to become a second permanent secretary.

Although clearly a highly intelligent boy, who won a bursary to the Royal High School of Edinburgh, there was never any thought of him going to university as a teenager. It wasn’t until he was 30 that he gained a BSc in economics, having realised that a degree was vital to his progression.

From then on his star was in the ascendancy: much of his career was spent at the Department of Trade and Industry and later the DTi. By 1975 he was seconded to the Scottish Office as under secretary for industrial development, where he worked to preserve, and attract more industrial jobs to Scotland – one of his favourite roles.

But perhaps the most challenging post came in 1984 when he was appointed chief executive of the vast Property Services Agency, an organisation in crisis and riddled with bribery and corruption.

Brought in to clean up the agency, he tackled the job with his usual direct and straightforward approach, working alongside Scotland Yard’s fraud squad to assist in bringing prosecutions against numerous corrupt members of staff. He was knighted three years later and after retirement chaired several large companies and became a director of many others, winning significant contracts for British firms at home and abroad, including for the building of China’s longest bridge.

Manzie, the son of a railway clerk, was born in Longstone, Edinburgh, and grew up in a council house in Stenhouse, where he went to the local primary school. After the outbreak of the Second World War he was evacuated to the Perthshire village of Collace, where he spent one of the most enjoyable years of his life, attending the village school while living with a family of nine cousins, with whom he kept in touch until he died.

Returning to Edinburgh when he was ten, he became joint dux of Stenhouse Primary and won bursaries to both the Royal High and George Heriot’s but chose to attend the former, going on to become president of the Royal High School Club in London, which he served for two terms in the 1980s.

His entrance into the civil service, at the age of 17, occurred as a result of picking up a leaflet about jobs as a clerical officer. He sat the civil service exam, came 65th out of 1100 who took it nationally, and joined the Scottish Home and Health Department in 1947, initially working in the central registry.

After taking his executive officer exam he was posted to the Ministry of Supply in London but was called up for national service in 1949. He served two years in the RAF at Hereford, West Drayton, and Bridgnorth before arriving at the Ministry of Supply in November 1951. The following month he met his future wife, Rosalind Clay, when she began work in the same section. They married in her native Blythe Bridge, Staffordshire, in 1955.

He had already noticed that in order to climb the ladder in the civil service he would require a degree and so he studied part-time for his A levels before 
enrolling at the London School of Economics to study for a BSc in the evenings. He thoroughly enjoyed his time there, with his tutors including leading academics such as Ralph Miliband, father of Labour leader Ed Miliband. He sat his final exam the day his first child was born and would later become a governor, emeritus governor and honorary fellow of the LSE, which was a source of great pride to Manzie.

Within a couple of years of graduating he became private secretary to the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Aviation and in 1967 he became secretary to the Edwards committee of inquiry into Civil Air Transport – a complex task that took him all over the world investigating civil aviation. Several posts followed in the departments of Trade and Industry when he worked with ministers including Tony Benn, Keith Joseph and Patrick Jenkin.

When he moved to the Scottish Office he worked with Secretaries of State Willie Ross, Bruce Millan and George Younger, defending the interests of Scotland in Whitehall and travelling overseas to attract jobs to Scotland. Subsequently, during his time with the DTi in the early 1980s, he led successful negotiations on behalf of GEC and Babcock Power for the £500 million Castle Peak B power station in Hong Kong. He also negotiated the inter-governmental agreement between the UK Government and the People’s Republic of China on the Daya Bay nuclear power plant which paved the way for GEC to compete for the turbine contract.

In 1984 he was made second permanent secretary and chief executive of the Property Service Agency which controlled and managed all government property, civil and military. He took over following an unsuccessful private sector appointment and worked closely with Scotland Yard’s fraud squad which was also headed by a fellow Scot at the time. The troubled agency had one of the Government’s biggest budgets and through Manzie’s diligence became a more efficient organisation and enjoyed a renewed sense of integrity.

Having been honoured with a CB in 1983, Manzie was awarded a knighthood in 1987. He retired in 1990 and swiftly became, with special permission from the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, chairman of Anglo Japanese Construction Ltd, where he successfully led negotiations to win the contract for the building of the Tsing Ma Bridge, the larger of the two bridges joining Hong Kong to its new airport.

He was chairman and director of a number of companies in the Trafalgar House group, which was later bought by Kvaerner, and won the contract for the superstructure for the Jiangyin suspension bridge over the river Yangtse, one of the world’s longest bridges, which was built by the Cleveland Bridge subsidiary.

A genuinely able manager who had been highly regarded by the ministers he worked with for his political judgment and nous, Manzie’s wide-ranging knowledge of industry also made him much sought-after in the private sector, resulting in the directorships of firms including Altnacraig and Altnamara Shipping companies and Motherwell Bridge Holdings plus a seat on the LEK Partnership advisory board.

Though he lived mainly in England for the past 50-odd years, where he was active in the Reformed Church and was president of the Bishop’s Stortford Caledonian Society, he remained a passionate Scot, a keen Heart of Midlothian supporter and a Burns aficionado who provided cultured Immortal Memory and To The Lassies toasts across Scotland and south-east England.

Loyal to his roots, he never forgot his extended family nor his origins and regularly returned north of the Border where he held debentures at Murrayfield.

Predeceased by his wife, Manzie is survived by their children Stella and Ian and grandchildren Ellen and Aodh.

ALISON SHAW