By Richard Sharpe
Alastair Macdonald CB died on January 9th 2022 after a short illness: he was 81.
Alastair Macdonald was one of the two most intelligent people I have interviewed thus far for Archives of IT. The other was Herman Hauser. Perhaps it was because he had been educated by the Jesuits at Wimbledon College and later was polished at Oxford.
“[T]here were two tutors who made a huge impression. One was a man called John Cooper, who was a specialist in the seventeenth century, English history, and he taught all of us to be cautious about deriving easy answers from a mass of facts. No matter how the evidence seemed to point one way, he, never go beyond saying, ‘Well, the evidence suggests that,’ Cromwell this, or Charles II that, or, that such and such did influence Robespierre…The second tutor who influenced me hugely was a man called Martin Gilbert: …when we went… to have tutorials with him, within ten minutes of one of us finish reading our essay, somehow or other, we were back in the 1930s… And he was, he was exciting, and provocative, and he made history relevant to the present day.”
He left and became a journalist working on The Spectator and The Financial Times. But he could not see himself ringing up people and asking pertinent questions in his 60s. Somebody at the British Embassy in Washington suggested he might like to be a civil servant. He did. He spent 32 years in central government. He was there providing advice as policy was thrashed out and there when the policy was implemented.
I interviewed him in June 2020 at the BCS London office just inside the City of London. He was in his 80th year, as bright as a pin and full of good stories. He was very proud of the reputation of the UK civil service for its impartiality. “I can remember one of the people who used to do positive vetting, these former policemen used to do positive vetting, came to me. Because he was doing myself and three members of my staff as one project. And, he said to me that, after all of his work talking to colleagues, friends, et cetera, of the other three, and myself, he said, ‘Do you know, I have no idea which way any one of you four actually vote in General Elections. I have absolutely no idea.’ And, I think that’s the philosophy you take in. And if you can’t stand the heat, you get out of the kitchen.”
One story involved the privatisation of BT in which he was deeply involved. “It wasn’t in the prospectus, ‘we see BT being a global player’. It was rather, letting British Telecom, you might say, out of the cage of being a nationalised industry. And how it performed out of the cage would have to depend upon how astute their prospective purchases were, or their strategy, the money, and brutally, the quality of management that they had and what the competition were doing. And, what drove ministers without doubt was, was releasing the shackles on, on British Telecom, you know. I can remember Norman Tebbit ringing Sir George Jefferson, the Chairman of British Telecom, a few weeks before the flotation, to say, ‘We have now agreed in government on the salaries of the main board members of British Telecom. And you as Chairman, the agreed salary, agreed between the Treasury and ourselves, is x, and for your deputy chairman, y,’ and, and so on. And Norman Tebbit said to Sir George Jefferson, ‘I very much hope that this is the last time that we in Government will be setting the salaries of one of the biggest companies in this country.’ So, it was, it wasn’t the ambition to be a global player; it was more to, give them the chance.”
He was also part of the government’s monitoring of the possible effects of the Y2K “bug”. “I actually had a team in the Cabinet Office ready all weekend so that, you know, if, if a hospital rang up… Every hospital had this telephone number to ring up if the electricity went down, and, what would we do in terms of crisis management? And, I personally remember very nervously, tentatively, turning on the television set at some point, probably about midnight, and seeing the new century celebrations taking place in New Zealand with fireworks et etcetera. And I saw, people had their lights on. Buses were running. Well… Toilets were flushing. Oh my God! I actually… I thought, well, God, at least in New Zealand things haven’t collapsed. And, you know, by that evening, my team in the Cabinet Office had gone home.”
As for the demise of a lot of the electronics industry in the UK: “Why is it we don’t have an Ericsson or a Philips or a Siemens? Ericsson is hardly a household name in electronics now. When was the last time that you saw Philips doing anything interesting in electronics? Siemens, yes, and I pay tribute to the way that they have pushed their way through the waves to survive. But even those other major companies, the Nokias and others, which were thought to be national champions in many cases, have just found the, the water’s too cold.”
At the end of the interview I thanked him for being a very civil servant: perhaps a better description is a very civil civil servant.