Alastair Macdonald, main civil servant on the DTI who was answerable for IT and carried by way of the British Telecom privatisation – obituary


Alastair Macdonald, who has died aged 81, was for twenty years a pivotal determine within the Division of Commerce and Trade, aiding the toddler IT sector within the early Eighties, organising the privatisation of British Telecom and eventually overseeing your entire vary of business coverage as Director-Normal for Trade.

He labored intently with ministers in Conservative and Labour governments, putting up notably sturdy rapports with Kenneth Baker, Norman Tebbit, Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson.

Diligent, hardworking, conscientious and discreet, Macdonald was revered as a person of probity. After coming into Whitehall, for instance, he was famend for insisting on paying his half of the invoice for lunch with a journalist out of his personal pocket, slightly than accepting leisure on bills.

Alastair John Peter Macdonald was born at Twickenham on August 11 1940, the eldest of three kids of Ewen and Hettie Macdonald. His father was an engineer with an organization making meters to manage the move of stress in energy stations.

From Wimbledon School, the place the longer term financial commentator and FT colleague William Keegan turned a lifelong buddy, he went as much as Trinity School, Oxford in 1959 to learn Fashionable Historical past. He was among the many first undergraduate consumption not beforehand to have finished Nationwide Service.

Fascinated by newspapers, Macdonald turned concerned with the coed journal Isis, working alongside Richard Ingrams, Paul Foot, Willie Rushton and Andrew Osmond. These older colleagues, he recalled, “spoke about wanting to begin a type of satirical journal just like the French Le Canard Enchainé, and the time period after they left, they began this unusual little journal which had the title Non-public Eye.”

That very same time period, Macdonald succeeded the longer term Arts Minister Gray Gowrie as editor of Isis. Graduating in 1962, he went into journalism, initially with The Spectator then after 9 months shifting to the FT as a reporter.

There, he joined “a group of younger folks whose job was to put in writing a function, in all probability as soon as per week, in regards to the prospects of a selected business. You have been obliged to hunt out the gamers within the space you have been writing about and interview them, and write up a 900-word piece in regards to the prospects for that business. That have was really nearly like going to a enterprise college for a 12 months or two.”

Macdonald subsequent spent a 12 months within the FT’s Washington workplace as deputy to David Watt, returning in 1966 to develop into the paper’s options editor. Whereas on the FT, he invested with a bunch of colleagues in a greyhound named Gurrane Jet, which ran with conspicuous lack of success on the previous Wimbledon Stadium.

Whereas in Washington, British embassy workers inspired him to think about a transfer to the Civil Service, and in 1968 he sat and handed the entry examination. Breaking the information to his colleagues, he defined: “Energy is the place energy lies.”

He started as an assistant principal within the Division of Financial Affairs, which the subsequent 12 months was absorbed into the Treasury. In 1971 he started his lengthy affiliation with the DTI; his first task – which he notably loved – was as secretary to Lord Devlin’s inquiry into how enterprise and business may very well be higher represented, commissioned by the Confederation of British Trade and the Affiliation of British Chambers of Commerce.

In 1982, Macdonald, by then an under-secretary, was put answerable for the fast-developing discipline of IT, working with an enthusiastic and stimulating minister in Baker. He was not that technical himself, however the appointment was successful.

It was IT 12 months, and one authorities initiative was the Micros in Colleges scheme, which, he recalled, “opened the eyes of schoolchildren, and their mother and father, to what was really taking place in IT by way of taking part in video games on the BBC Micro”.

The DTI then had two goals for the IT business: to assist comparatively small British corporations construct themselves as much as develop into internationally aggressive – one thing that proved exhausting to realize – and to maintain afloat the nation’s flagship firm, ICL, which might ultimately merge with Fujitsu.

Macdonald was notably concerned in working up the Alvey Venture, the Authorities’s response to Japan’s Fifth Technology initiative in computing, which aimed to develop a spread of pre-competitive applied sciences in live performance with academia and business. He reckoned that Alvey proved worthwhile in getting groups from the three sectors used to working collectively, however produced few tangible industrial advantages.

In 1984 he moved to go the DTI’s telecommunications division, to arrange particularly for the BT privatisation. This concerned getting the Telecoms Invoice by way of Parliament, negotiating the licence with BT setting out precisely what the corporate may do, and organising the worldwide inventory flotation.

“Each Monday morning I’d chair a gathering of Kleinwort Benson and Linklaters, our attorneys, the Treasury, and our personal group at DTI, and thrash by way of what needed to be finished, the place we had received to on a thousand points or so. We have been monitored intently by Norman Tebbit, who took a really eager curiosity.”

Regardless of preliminary scepticism inside and outdoors authorities that the undertaking may very well be carried by way of, the flotation was profitable – and the largest the Metropolis of London had ever seen.

From 1990 to 1992, Macdonald was seconded to the MoD as Deputy Below Secretary of State (Defence Procurement). He returned to the DTI as Director-Normal (Trade), holding this publish for eight years till his retirement in 2000.

For the primary three, his secretary of state was Heseltine. “One felt he had wished to have the job of being the Secretary of State for Commerce and Trade for a very long time,” Macdonald recalled. “He was notably anxious that civil servants needs to be near industrialists, needs to be listening to them, and needs to be influenced by them and may report again to ministers the sensation of business.”

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