Let Scotland flourish

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 14 December 2015 in Editor's note

Mandy Rhodes on the career of Sir Neil McIntosh, who was honoured for lifetime achievement at the Scottish Public Service Awards

Last week, at Holyrood magazine’s annual Scottish Public Service Awards, held in the Scottish Parliament, the Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to a man who embodies all that we now refer to as our common bond – our Scottish values.

Sir Neil McIntosh has dedicated his life to public service and he is so inextricably linked with so many of our public bodies that when the judges came to nominate names for the award, his was the most obvious.

And it is a measure of the man that when I contacted him to tell him, he graciously acknowledged the merits of all others in public life and said that he remembered how pleased he had been to see “such a fine person as Sir Harry Burns” being recognised last year with the same award “but never dreamt for one minute” that he would ever feature.


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Like Burns, Scotland’s redoubtable former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Neil hails from the west of Scotland. And like Sir Harry, he has an unbridled passion for the common weal.

And as he accepted his award last week, I was struck by how such modesty could come from such greatness. And how uncorrupted he had become by his journey through an often unforgiving life of public service.

I reflected on this in a week when Sir Alistair Darling was rewarded for his years in elected office with a £250,000-a-year place on the main board of bankers Morgan Stanley to add to his MP’s pension pot, and Alistair Carmichael MP walked away from court and back into public life, cleared of electoral fraud but with his own reputation badly tarnished and him, personally, somehow diminished.

Sir Neil never sought elected office, but his professional life spanned decades working for those that did, in local government, the third sector and in various tiers of public sector management, including chief executive appointments with Dumfries and Galloway Council, where he coordinated the council’s incredible response to the Lockerbie disaster, and then later at the helm of the old and febrile Strathclyde Regional Council where, when he was advised to hide himself away from the political strife, he threw open his office doors instead.

He has served, at one time or another, as a representative on almost all our most cherished public institutions, including being chair of the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland, head of COSLA and convener of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations where, barely a few months after taking up the role, he led a protest march down Princes Street about the impact of local government reorganisation on the voluntary sector.

Sir Neil was also the chief counting officer for the Scottish Parliament referendum in 1997.

It is no exaggeration to say that he is a man that has helped shape Scotland.

And yet he is unpretentious in his achievements, expects no great baubles for his toils and is generous in the wisdom of his words. I could not improve upon them.

“You know, standing here in the Scottish Parliament is one of these dreams which has come true,” he said at the awards. “I remember Donald Dewar on the night of the results of the Scottish referendum sitting in the front row as I came out and as I declared the first result – ‘yes and yes’ – Donald Dewar just stood up and said ‘Yes!’. This was his dream come true. I think he had trust in the Scottish public and it was realised. If he were here now he would be, I think, very satisfied with the way in which the parliament is developing.

“I think he would take pride, in a non-political way, about the way his successive first minister is now punching Scotland’s weight internationally so high.

“But I know myself, having spent time across local government and beyond, just how important it is to have a belief in and a thrust and a knowledge of what it is you’re trying to do. What this takes us to is a central core.

“I heard this expressed a week ago by Alice Brown at the Scottish Funding Council at a meeting in Dumfries, when she said, ‘all of this, all of these statistics, all this documentation, at the end of the day is secondary to our purpose, which is for the individual’.

“That is something I’ve taken through all my life as being critically important, that we remember it is with the individual, her power and his aspiration, their dreams and their opportunities, that we operate ourselves. It starts there and it finishes there.

“We’re now in a situation where departments and government are going to have to address a whole range of issues and we have an opportunity, in my view, to take the first two years of the next Scottish government as an opportunity to stop for a moment and look at the building blocks, which are public services, to look at the mix of the delivery of public services, to get back to the core issues that apply – how does this enhance the lives of individuals? – and to look at the shaping of the next decade.

“In that sense, I believe we can all engage in this and I see a situation in which the voluntary services, the third sector, which is so key and so critical, is playing its part, with the Scottish civil service, now operating on a very effective scale, playing its part, with local government hopefully resourced and empowered to do so in a way which works within national government policy. And I hope you will find in your own work an opportunity to contribute.

“As a Glaswegian, I have had the words ‘let Glasgow flourish’ running through my veins but perhaps I could part with them for now, on the basis that, in your hands, you will let Scotland flourish.”

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