Obituary: Tony Godden: eminent civil servant who worked in Scottish Office from 1961 to 1987

Tony Godden, C.B., civil servant. Born: 13 November, 1927 in Barnstaple, Devon. Died 24 August, 2020 in Dartmouth, Devon, aged 92.
Eminent civil servant Tony Godden has died at the ageof 92Eminent civil servant Tony Godden has died at the ageof 92
Eminent civil servant Tony Godden has died at the ageof 92

Tony Godden, C.B., civil servant. Born: 13 November, 1927 in Barnstaple, Devon. Died 24 August, 2020 in Dartmouth, Devon, aged 92.

Tony Godden has died peacefully at a nursing home in Dartmouth, Devon, a few months short of his 93rd birthday. In his time he was one of the most important and highly regarded civil servants in Scotland. Described as having “a brain the size of Mars and a sense of humour somewhat drier than the Sahara desert”, his was a meticulous and safe hand on the tiller of Scottish affairs throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

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He was born in the north Devon town of Barnstaple in November 1927, an only child. His father was a commercial traveller for the biscuit manufacturers Huntley & Palmers, which frequently proved useful to Tony. Like many country boys of the time he liked to go poaching for rabbits, but after one such expedition made the mistake of cycling back through Barnstaple with a gun sticking out of his saddle bag. His promising school career might have ended abruptly had it not been for his father, who deftly bought off the local police with several boxes of biscuits.

The occasional episode of this kind aside, he was a studious boy and an avid reader of the newspapers. He became increasingly interested in economic affairs and the challenges Britain would face in rebuilding its shattered post-war economy.

Just too young to fight in the war, he left school in 1945 and took advantage of the new system of student grants to go into higher education, the first in his family to do so. The London School of Economics was the obvious choice, and he graduated in 1948 with one of the highest marks ever recorded. He was also the coxswain of the Rowing Club, and the LSE shield, showing a beaver and the motto “Rerum Cognoscere Causas” (to Know the Causes of Things) hung in his hall ever afterwards. After National Service in the RAF, he returned to civilian life and sat the Civil Service exams, achieving what he understood to be the second highest mark in the country. He and some friends then went on a cycling tour of war-scarred France. There was very little money, but once again having connections in the grocery trade came to the rescue. Before he left, his father gave him a large bag of coffee beans, then almost unobtainable in Europe. “That’ll open every door in France,” his father said, and so it proved. The coffee beans ensured free board and lodging from delighted landladies all over the north of France, and the trip only ended when the bag eventually ran out.

In 1951 he entered the Colonial Office in Whitehall with the rank of Assistant Principal. One of his main assignments throughout the 1950s was travelling to Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, and Barbados, helping to oversee the islands’ gradual moves towards independence.

It was not all work, however, and he found time to fall in love with the vibrant calypso music of the Carribbean, returning with a stack of 78s he was to play for the rest of his life. He was particularly impressed with the up to date topicality of the calypsos, remarking that if the Governor’s wife was seen wearing an extravagant hat in the morning, there was probably a calypso about it in the bars that afternoon.

But working in London in those days meant not only Monday to Friday, but Saturday morning as well, and the incessant commuting from his home in Redhill was exhausting. In 1960 he heard about a vacancy in the Scottish Office, based in Edinburgh.

Against the advice of several senior civil servants who told him that Scotland was a remote backwater and the graveyard of promising careers, he accepted the post and moved himself and his family to Edinburgh in September 1961.

From then on he rose rapidly through the ranks (although he was always amused by the uninspiring job titles), going in a few years from Assistant Secretary to Under Secretary, and finally Deputy Secretary, the second highest rank in the Scottish Office at that time. One of his major projects was the development of the A9 and the opening up of the Highlands, which in the early sixties could take longer to reach than London.

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Completely dedicated to his work, he was never home before 6.30pm and after dinner with the family would vanish into his study, sitting down to his desk as though starting a new day. Colleagues remember him as unfailingly kind, particularly to younger staff, several of whom chose to follow him from department to department.

At home, he was a keen gardener and model railway enthusiast. Kindly and approachable as he was, yet the careful habits of the civil servant never entirely left him. His children and their friends will never forget the rules of The Mousetrap Game and Monopoly being explained to them in fearsome detail before they were allowed to play, and having to wait in an agony of suspense while he read the instruction book from cover to cover before letting them loose on some new toy.

He retired in 1987. He was for many years the Secretary (again that inevitable job title amused him) of the Friends of the Royal Scottish Academy, and a loyal member of the New Club. He sat on the appointments board of the civil service, and never lost his interest in civil service affairs. He was dismayed by Brexit, which for him epitomised everything he despised most – flashiness, incompetence, and a cavalier disregard for facts. He pitied the civil servants who had to deal with it.

In 2015 he and his wife retired to the South Hams of Devon, where his last years were happy and peaceful.

He is survived by his wife Marjorie, who he married in 1953, also by two of his three children Julia and Richard, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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