Obituary: Sir William Kerr Fraser, former permanent secretary at the Scottish Office and university chancellor

Sir William Kerr Fraser has died at the age of 89
Sir William Kerr Fraser has died at the age of 89
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Sir William Kerr Fraser, civil servant. Born: 18 March, 1929 in Glasgow. Died: 13 September, 2018 aged 89.

Sir William Kerr Fraser, former permanent secretary at the Scottish Office, who was later principal and then chancellor of the University of Glasgow, has died at the age of 89.

He was one of the foremost public servants of his generation, bringing a human face, a flinty integrity, a sense of community and a wry humour to the dry art of administration and government. Although he was at the twin pinnacles of his career, a prominent member of Scotland’s ruling establishment, this was by breaking through several of its then conventions.

Kerr Fraser was born on 18 March, 1929 in Glasgow. His father Alec was an insurance inspector, with Prestwick roots. His mother, Rachel, was from Glasgow and had been a clerk in Wylie and Lochhead department store.

Kerr was their only son and carried high expectations. He would later recall, at the age of ten, his mother taking him to Gilmorehill to see the view over the city from Glasgow University tower. She believed that much of it would soon be destroyed by Hitler’s bombers, but she wanted to set an expectation that he would become the first in his family to attend university.

After excelling at Eastwood High School and as a dutiful Boys’ Brigader, he duly matriculated at Glasgow in an era when those fresh from the war made for a particularly rich and mature learning environment. He was a youngster, studying for an ordinary MA and then a law degree.

He was active in the Student Representative Council at a time when the campus was a hotbed of activity for the Scottish Covenant pushing for home rule. In a stramash over the election of Nationalist John McCormick as rector, Kerr Fraser’s was a cameo role, then as SRC secretary and later as president, appearing in news footage of a rectorial address at the St Andrew’s Halls, where the stage party was being pelted with flour.

Counting as a neutral in student politics and amid the alignments of the new Cold War, he was chosen to represent British students at a conference in Peking, making him one of the first Westerners to visit the country after the revolution, and during the Korean War.

It broadened his horizons, and caught the attention of a younger student politician he had known from the age of three through their mothers’ acquaintance. Marion Forbes would become his date for university dances, and in 1956 they began 60 years of married life, having four children by 1964.

On leaving university in 1952, Kerr Fraser took an alternative route through National Service on a three-year short service commission in the RAF. He surprised even himself in becoming Sword of Honour cadet. Having been something of a student caricature with his rolled umbrella and pipe, he was not seen as the sort to excel with a bayonet.

His expectation was to return to Scotland as a solicitor, combining that with a career in local council administration, aspiring to become a town clerk. But being an RAF officer, the opportunity arose to take the Civil Service exam. He came first equal and chose to work in the Scottish Office from 1955. He would remain there, based in Edinburgh, for 33 years. The main threads running through his career were in police, local government and economic development, with a brief return to Glasgow University on a research fellowship in 1963.

He was secretary to the commission looking into reform of local government, and was influential in drawing up a plan which would, in 1974, see regions and districts replacing numerous burgh and county councils.

In 1966-67, as private secretary to Willie Ross, the Secretary of State for Scotland, he came closer to Westminster politics, which held a lifelong fascination.

The Wilson government was implementing far-reaching reforms in economic planning and regeneration, notably including projects to tackle the problems of Glasgow and the Highlands. In that role, he was at the centre of a Cold War exchange of visits in 1967 between Mr Ross and the Soviet Union’s foreign minister, Alexei Kosygin.

In 1975, he was promoted to head the new Central Services division, which included the drawing-up of devolution legislation. The plan put to voters in the referendum of 1979 was his handiwork.

The Scottish Office had been shaken by the 1974 jailing for corruption of one of its fast-track stars, George Pottinger. Sir Nicholas Morrison was installed from Whitehall to steady the ship as permanent secretary. In 1978, he chose Kerr Fraser, aged 49, to be his successor.

It was important at that time to have a Scot in the top job, and in the wake of scandal, he approached the role with a sometimes austere integrity. Convention was being overturned both by having someone in that role who had not worked within a Whitehall department, and who sat at the permanent secretaries top table in Whitehall without an elite private schooling or Oxbridge degree.

Fraser remained in that post for ten years, working alongside Scottish Secretaries Bruce Millan of Labour and Conservatives George Younger and Malcolm Rifkind. The Thatcher government was a challenge to his public service ethos, preferring market disciplines, and the Scottish Office sought to soften some of the hard edges.

As Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, he chose a higher profile role than his predecessors – a public face for the civil service, explaining its role, networking, in the media and with frequent speeches.

Knighted in 1979, Sir William (Kerr) Fraser was awarded the more senior honour of GCB – Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath – in 1994.

He was back to commuting by sleeper each week and into the office for a day’s work before others arrived. A newspaper profile at that time quoted a colleague saying “He eats paper”. Before the days of email, his spidery writing in the margin of draft minutes and memos carried precision and weight within the machinery of government before documents were finalised and “put up to ministers”.

Much of this work was done into the early hours of the morning, at home, listening to classical music (his favourite pastime) in a fog of pipe smoke. He found work absorbing, to the exclusion of much else. One eccentric hobby was, in spare moments, to compose poetry based on family or news stories that he found amusing. Parenting duties were for the weekend, when he delivered an extensive taxi service for children and musical instruments. He unwound on family holidays in Arisaig, Barra and Iona, and sailed a dinghy, badly.

In 1988, he became principal of Glasgow University on a seven-year contract. This, again, broke through convention in a way that is now more common – a non-academic vice-chancellor.

That year was the start of sharp growth in student numbers. Their funding faced upheaval over these years, and required diversification. Accountability for both teaching and research was being introduced. Sir William reformed Glasgow University’s management, and played a leading role within the wider sector.

With Lady Marion, he took a close interest in student affairs. The Principal’s Lodging was busy with international students and staff, also welcoming parents to the university family. The couple would be jointly honoured with the naming of the Fraser Building, housing student services at the university.

From 1996 until 2006, Sir William was the university’s chancellor. He continued also to play an informal role in public life, providing advice in the preparation of devolution legislation in 1998. Three of his grandsons were students at Glasgow. Sir William took much quiet pride in his family, not least the three of his six grandchildren who are currently civil servants.

Retirement in Gifford, East Lothian, provided a different, welcoming community for the Fraser couple, and a garden to tend. By this time, Lady Marion Fraser had her own later life career in the voluntary sector, across the Kirk, arts and mental health and becoming UK chair of Christian Aid. She was appointed Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and a Lady of the Order of the Thistle. However, these Gifford years saw growing ill-health and immobility. Her husband was a full-time carer, though he never cared for that description.

Lady Marion died on Christmas Day, 2016. Sir William was determined, sometimes stubbornly, to continue living independently but ill-health took its toll on him too.

He continued to devour newspapers and books despite failing eyesight, eager to keep learning to the end, but dispirited as he listened to broadcast news of public service undermined, expertise disdained, and the conventions of British government in chaotic disarray.

Sir William is survived by his family, Graham, Andrew, Lindsey and Douglas, and his grandchildren Alasdair, Colum, Robert, Roseanne, Patrick and Moray.