70 Years of St Andrew's House

St Andrew's House, headquarters of the Scottish Government, celebrated its 70th birthday on September 4, 2009.

Inside Stories 7

Peter Mackay

From the outside, SAH seemed a forbidding place when I started work there in June 1963, with an imposing entrance (which staff did not use) and rows of floors and windows, with what looked like fortified slits at the top level peering out between Statecraft and its fellow statues. But once inside, things soon changed. The long corridors had no fire doors and the morning and late afternoon sun streamed in from either end - so it was for most of us a light and airy place to work. With lots of traffic of staff up and down the corridors and stairs, and messengers delivering trolley loads of files to every office, there was an air of bustle and business. This was amplified when the tea trollies came round in the morning and afternoon and people would leave their desks to buy tea and biscuits ( I still remember Doris ringing her bell!) at their office door. And with glass doors (albeit opaque) to most offices, the sun would shine through those on the south side giving an impression of light and space in the corridors. So the inside belied the rather intimidating exterior- as of course did the people who worked there.

Assistant Principals or APs as the fast stream entrants were then called were thin on the ground (three or four a year joined the Scottish Office, and by no means all stayed), and I was treated as a mascot by the old soldiers in the branch rooms who were keen to make sure I understood the intricacies of proper filing while introducing me to such arcane subjects as the Edinburgh Civil Service Shopping Guild or the Burnley Building Society (both of which, changed days, gave favourable terms to civil servants). More senior staff were always ready to explain what they were doing and why and I can remember my very busy immediate boss taking time a couple of times a week to go through Hansard with me to explain what was happening in Parliament. Initially, I shared a tiny room on the fourth floor with my boss, a principal (C1 equivalent) and at various times for the next three years or so shared rooms with two principals. Virtually no one below the rank of Assistant Secretary (Assistant Director now) had a room of their own.

As an AP I initially was very much the odd job man in the branch and a lot of my time, in the three jobs I had in the first two years, was taken with drafting speeches, replies to Green folders (MPs' letters), first drafts of answers to PQs, and, latterly, working on a Bill going through Parliament. Looking back, it is striking how much drafting and redrafting was done at every level - a submission to ministers or a draft reply to ministerial correspondence would usually go to Ministers over the signature of a head of Department or his Private Secretary, rather than direct from the officer primarily responsible. En route it would be typed and retyped perhaps three or four times first in the typing pool (having been dictated to a short hand typist), then by the Assistant Secretary's PS (and perhaps the Under Secretary's PS) before being approved by the Head of Department and retyped for final submission to Ministers. The top copy was always on blue paper, on which Ministers wrote their comments in manuscript, and it was the one which was supposed eventually to find its way back to the official file and ultimately to the National Archives.

So for the AP it was a rare but satisfying feeling to see one's limpid prose survive the critical attentions of those further up the hierarchy. No doubt the resulting quality was high, but so too were the costs and in retrospect too much senior staff time was taken in fine tuning adequate if not perfect drafts. But the system then did at least act as a brake on swamping ministers with relatively minor matters coming straight to them from many different sourcesm - and enabled Heads of Department to keep quite tight, perhaps too tight, control on what went to Ministers

In the areas I worked in for the first two years or so the rhythms of the day were determined to a great extent by the Parliamentary timetable. During the Parliamentary session, Fridays (and to a lesser extent Mondays) were the days Ministers were in the office and out and about in Scotland, and that was the day they saw deputations and had meetings with senior staff - they very rarely saw unaccompanied staff below the rank of Assistant Secretary. Fridays during the session were often fraught with pressure to get time-critical submissions to Ministers or into their weekend boxes, and let them have final briefing for any debates in the following week, which were always announced after the business statement in the House on a Thursday afternoon. Some debates were predictable a week or two before e.g. progress on Bills, whilst others would be announced out of the blue on Thursday and the branch responsible would have to drop everything else to get the briefing forward with barely a working day's notice. During the week during the Parliamentary session (which occasionally ran on till mid-August) the four or five Scottish Ministers were in Cabinet committees and House of Commons' standing committees on legislation for much of the day, and in the early afternoon they liked to be in the House for Question time - especially Tuesdays and Thursday for PMs' questions. So much of their work on departmental papers was done in the evening with flurries of questions and requests coming back to SAH between, say 5 and 6 30, and then again in the overnight bag, or by teleprint (and by the mid 1970s by fax) and phone in the morning as the private secretaries harvested the results of their ministers' labours the previous evening.

The three or four AP entrants a year to the Scottish Office (out of a total entry to the Civil Service annually of perhaps 60 in the early 1960s) tended to stick together, with the other recent entrant APs who had not yet moved into a Ministerial Private Office. So there was a group of a dozen or so of us, nearly all in SAH and working across all four Scottish Departments -SHHD, SED, DAFS, SDD- and the two or three Regional Development Divisions which reported to the Permanent Under Secretary of State. We were a little network across the office and invaluable help to each other in finding our way around the office as a whole. And this feeling of camaraderie would be reinforced by the daily ritual of tea with our immediate friends and contemporaries upstairs in the canteen from about 4 to 4 15pm before the last flurries of the day. We would expect to leave the office around 6pm whilst many of our seniors laboured on till nearer 7pm with the pressures of final drafting and getting things into the nightly Dover House bag before it was closed

I cycled to work from Clermiston, via Queensferry Rd and Queen Street, and the first traffic lights I came to were at the bottom of Waterloo Place, usually arriving just before 9am. There was a small wooden cycle shed in the west car park below the Governor`s House and usually only three bikes used it, or more precisely two bikes and one tricycle. The cyclists were Sir Ronald Johnson (who used to cycle up the Gas Brae) and I; the trike belonged to Reg Tucker the DAFS establishment (personnel) officer. The rest of the west car park in that more hierarchical age was reserved for Under Secretaries and the Heads of Department. I think the east car park was a free for all for staff, a great incentive for some to arrive early, but the vast majority of staff of all grades used public transport or walked to work.

Individually we were, in our early days especially, very dependent on the goodwill and support of our immediate bosses at Principal and Assistant Secretary level, most of whom took very seriously their "on the job" training responsibilities. It was good too for us APs to realise that more than half of the Assistant Secretaries in those days had risen through the ranks, having joined as school leavers and that they more than made up with experience and ability what they might have lacked in formal higher education. Indeed, some of the most educated and cultured people I worked with were largely self taught. So as graduate entrants we were clear we had a lot to learn before we could pull our weight in the office. In those days when perhaps only 5% of the age group went to university, the Civil Service attracted bright school leavers who could see a worthwhile career ahead with recognised routes through the apparently hierarchical class system. The Clerical, Executive and Administrative classes embraced the gamut of entrants to the non professional grades from the 15 year old clerical assistant, to the 18 year old school leaver entrant, as a Clerical Officer or Executive Officer, to the fast stream honours graduate entrant as an AP. Very few general administrative staff joined the Service other than at these entry levels.

For some of us, the time could not come quickly enough before we were allowed/required to go to London for a parliamentary occasion or Whitehall meeting. The excitement of travelling by sleeper soon wore off-especially as junior ranks like us had to share a compartment, often with a complete stranger. But there was almost a ritual as those heading south gathered at Waverley sometime after 11pm to study the list of sleeper passengers on open display on the platform. We took some perverse satisfaction in knowing that Cabinet Ministers and MPs were on the same bumpy rattling train as us. We would also see which friends were travelling too, and begin to think how we might have an evening out together on the morrow when the days's work was done and before we caught the sleeper home. The lists disappeared in the early 1970 on security grounds as the IRA terror campaign gathered pace so we rarely knew whether the snores in the adjacent compartment came from a colleague or a Cabinet Minister.

If one was lucky enough to be a member of a Bill team one could look forward to weeks spent in Dover House and Parliament. And they really were teams; everyone from Assistant Secretary, and Legal Adviser to AP turned their hand to preparing for the Parliamentary stages, all sharing the same room high in the attics of Dover House, surrounded by piles of paper and half a dozen phones ringing and ministerial Private secretaries coming in and out with questions and instructions from their masters, floors below. For a new entrant it was a fascinating introduction to the work of Parliament and government and it was a great day when at last one was allowed to enter the Officials' Box in the House of Commons (or the space on the right of the throne in the Lords) and see Parliament in action. Most Scottish business in the Chamber came on well after 10pm, and soon one became quite blasé about working to 1 or 2am, and getting back into Dover House by 9am.

Bill teams usually had a marked esprit de corps and at least once a week, usually the night we caught the sleeper back to Edinburgh, we would all go out together to some cheap restaurant in Soho and wine and dine well (perhaps for as much as 10 shillings per head when the subsistence rate was 30 shillings a night and my salary was £832 a year). These evenings together did wonders for morale, as we realised that the great men (and the few women) we worked for and with were undoubtedly human. And it was not unknown in later years for such bill team outings to be joined by the Permanent Secretary and even a minister. Next morning at 730 it was Edinburgh in the cold light of day, and for most of us the line of least resistance was trudge up the Waverley steps, turn right and head for St Andrew's House, to catch up with the work which had been piling up in our in-trays, while we had been in London. And to think that our colleagues left back in Edinburgh imagined that we had just been enjoying ourselves.

For many APs such experiences would be followed by a two year spell as a Private Secretary to a junior minister. This meant a routine during the Parliamentary session of catching the sleeper on a Sunday night, working in London till Thursday, and Friday being spent in Scotland, with a mix of external engagements and receiving deputations and meetings with civil servants in St Andrews House.

With such a concentrated dose of sleepers and cheap hotels the novelty of London soon wore off. This was especially true for our wives most of us had married in our early 20s, who had to bear the brunt of family care when our children were young. Over the next thirty years and more we became increasingly weary of London and what it entailed but those days there in our early years were the foundations on which many lasting friendships were built. And when I think of St Andrew's House now, 45 years on, it is of the friends we made, and the fun we had, trying to make Scotland an even better place in which to live and work.

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