“Moments like that I think, ‘we’ve really created something’”: Exclusive interview with Sir Paul Grice

Written by Tom Freeman on 4 July 2019 in Inside Politics

Sir Paul Grice, clerk and chief executive of the Scottish Parliament since its inception, on devolution so far

Image credit: David Anderson

It is perhaps a mark of Sir Paul Grice’s humility that he won’t describe leaving his position as Clerk and Chief Executive of the Scottish Parliament as the end of an era.

But for a public servant who has been at the centre of the parliament since its conception, his departure – to become Queen Margaret University’s new Principal and Vice-Chancellor – is a significant one, marked by Holyrood’s lifetime achievement award.

Grice worked with Labour’s manifesto devolution commitments, helped deliver a referendum within months of the party being elected to government, was lead official on the Scotland Act which made a parliament possible, directed the team which actually delivered it and then became clerk of the institution for its first 20 years.

Writing to inform MSPs of his decision, Grice told members his enthusiasm for the Scottish Parliament was “undimmed”, and indeed, Holyrood witnesses this first-hand when we visit him in his office.

Behind him is a saltire stained-glass artwork, mounted on a lightbox, which he switches on with a grin, explaining it was made in the lead-up to the 1998 referendum which brought devolution to Scotland.

“We were also responsible, among other things, for the publicity around the referendum. Not the campaigning, but the awareness.

“One of the adverts featured a woman making a saltire stained glass. She’s a proper artist. Her condition was, ‘I’m happy to do it but I’ll be very upset if it’s then just thrown away.’ So I carried that thing around in a shopping bag for several years, thinking that when we eventually find a permanent home, I’m going to install it.”

Although it was unable to be installed into one of the parliament’s windows, the glass was attached to a lightbox after a suggestion by the building’s art curator, Fiona McDougall.

“I always felt very protective of it, because I felt we’d given an undertaking that this thing would not just be lost. So here it is.”

The seriousness with which Grice takes his responsibilities is not in doubt, as expressed by MSPs responding to news of his departure. Speaking to Holyrood, members of all parties have praised his integrity and willingness to support them in whatever needs they might have.

But Grice was a very different character in his schooldays. Despite having passed his 11+ and attended grammar school, he left school as “a stroppy 16-year-old” with a clutch of “mediocre” grades at O-level.

Remaining in Yorkshire, he went to a technical college to gain skills in construction.

“I saw a career in the construction industry. But at 18, with my diploma in my hand, there just weren’t really many jobs in 1980.”

He had an interest in economics, and looked at options at a number of polytechnics, but it was Stirling University that caught his eye, offering him a place despite the fact he had no Highers or A-levels.

The flexible admissions shown by Stirling was very unusual at the time.

“I’ll be honest with you, not many universities were saying, ‘ooh, a diploma in building, come and study with us!’,” Grice remembers. “But I happened to visit Stirling in the winter. The campus there is just stunning, and it was covered in snow. I remember walking up and I just thought, ‘Wow. If they let me, I could easily come and live here for three or four years.’”

He told his parents that it would be “a no-brainer” if he was offered a place, which he was, provided he got 75 per cent in his diploma.

“I ticked no other boxes, but I was keen. Whoever it was in the admissions team must have thought, let’s give him that. It was tough. It really concentrated my mind and I worked my socks off.”

He enrolled to study economics, sociology and environmental science. It was the beginning of a close relationship with Scotland.

“My grandfather was a soldier in a Scottish regiment, so I knew Scotland. Like most army families, my mother had travelled around but she had spent some time in Paisley, and my grandfather had signed up at the Ayr recruiting office as a professional soldier.”

After graduating, he toured the Highlands before settling in Edinburgh to look for a job.

“I worked as a motorcycle dispatch rider, which was good fun. I learned a lot about risk and reward. It was high risk, low reward, but we had fun. I worked in a pub.

“About three or four months in, not having had a lot of success, I saw the advert for something I’d never heard of before. The civil service fast stream.”

After a lengthy admissions process, Grice was offered a job but to his surprise, it was in London. He had expected to work at the Scottish Office in Edinburgh.

“I was about 23 by then and spent the rest of my 20s down in Whitehall. But I always wanted to come back. I’d put Scottish Office as my first choice, but they took two people a year or something and I wasn’t one of them.

“In the end, like a lot of things, it worked out brilliantly. I did some fantastic jobs down there and met some great people.”

Nevertheless, with opportunities to come back to Scotland not emerging, he considered leaving the civil service as his 30th birthday approached. Then, ahead of the 1992 general election, the Scottish Office changed its tune.

“After saying, ‘no, we’ve got no vacancies’ it was, ‘can you start in two weeks’ time?’

“So, I was able to come up here just before the ’92 election and had a great four or five years doing urban regeneration and housing. Management of change.”

It was a very different experience to what he’d been used to at Whitehall, where relations with Labour councils like Jeremy Corbyn’s Haringey and Militant-run Liverpool were “antagonistic”.

“It was stimulating intellectually but difficult, an adversarial time. You did think at the end of the day, ‘what have we actually achieved?’

“When I came to Scotland, and working in housing and regeneration, I had a lot of dealings with local authorities, and I was amazed and delighted the first time I went through to Glasgow to talk to people in Castlemilk that they regarded us as being pretty much on the same side. It was fantastic. I really enjoyed it, the multiagency approach.”

Grice had returned to Scotland frequently through his Scottish wife, making many visits.

“What I also discovered over a number of years was the relative lack of political input. I mean, there was a good team of ministers, some really terrific people, like James Douglas-Hamilton and others.

“Nonetheless, it was what you might call ‘light touch’, and what I was used to in the Whitehall environment was being at any point summoned up to see the minister, spending time in the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

“So, I found, in a strange way, there wasn’t a lot of political engagement, apart from the two or three things the Secretary of State was running with.

“At one level, it meant you could sort of get on with things, but this is where I think politicians are needed. They do shake things up, they do change things. If you leave it to people like me, we will just keep running it without ever really changing much.”

That change would come in the form of the devolution commitments in the Labour manifesto for the 1997 election. Grice and his team had spent “several weeks” looking at the proposals before the election and was able to move quickly on the referendum bill once the new Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar, took his post.

Grice and his team were given the responsibility to make sure the referendum worked, supervised by chief returning officer Sir Neil McIntosh, “just a marvellous guy”.

“We were sitting there, staring at fax machines for the results. They literally came in from round the country. We were pulling off faxes, and if those fax machines broke, we were in trouble! We were more nervous about the fax machines than anything else.”

Grice became  the lead official in the legislation which would establish a new parliament in Edinburgh. The bill had entered the House of Lords phase when Grice’s boss, Robert Gordon, approached him about making the parliament a reality.

“Robert, the Secretary of State and others had obviously understood we had to get on and set up the institution. I had an opportunity. I just got lucky. They said, ‘right, you’re it’, and I got a grand title. I was made director of implementation. I was a director of something.”

He was given his own budget in a semi-autonomous body tasked with creating a parliament.

Grice drew inspiration from a visit he’d made to a Honda car plant in Swindon during civil service training. The plant was still being built and Grice remembers the office of “an utterly inspirational guy running it”, which was plastered with complex diagrams, Gantt charts, all leading up to the date of completion.

“I was blown away by this,” he remembers. “At the end point was a date – it could have been the ninth of July – and we were back in, like, September.

“I remember saying to him the classic, ‘what happens if you don’t make the ninth of July?’ and he said, ‘no, the whole point of this is so we will make the ninth of July. We don’t wait till the eighth and then fail.’”

Grice went on to use a similar approach in planning the Scottish Parliament because missing the delivery date “wasn’t an option”. Grice arranged for every MSP elected to the new parliament to receive a letter by hand welcoming them to the new institution.

“The Post Office were brilliant. We had posties driving up the glens of Scotland. I thought that the day after you’ve been elected, what a nice thing. I wanted them to feel something special had happened.”

The letter invited members to come in informally, ahead of the inductions if they wanted to, and some, like Margo MacDonald, took Grice up on the invitation.

“They just strolled in for a cup of tea. That was great for the staff because everyone was really fired up, as you might imagine. It’s like when you throw a big party at home and you go, ‘I hope someone turns up’, and some of the local members did.”

Grice was made temporary clerk by the legislation and took some sage advice before applying for the job on a permanent basis.

“I have to say, thanks to David Steel, the first presiding officer, who did say, ‘I hope you’re thinking of throwing your name in the hat.’ To be honest, at that point, not really. He said: ‘The clerk of a parliament is a wonderful job.’ I remember him saying that.”

He describes veteran politician Steel as “a great asset” to the parliament as it experienced teething problems, first being criticised during a transition period where MSPs didn’t yet have law-making powers but focused on housekeeping things like expenses.

Then the construction of the new controversial Holyrood building lost both its principals, when First Minister Donald Dewar and architect Enric Miralles both died before it was completed.

Grice and his team were exposed to a level of scrutiny normally avoided by public servants, and it was well into the second session before the building was completed.

“It’s not easy to come into work every day and have that amount of pressure applied to you through the media and through members. It wasn’t just a project, it became a political issue that was very difficult to work around.” Most members remained supportive on a personal level, he adds.

The 2014 independence referendum also turned the spotlight onto the parliament itself, Grice remembers, with the world’s media on its doorstep.

“I have fantastic memories of wandering around and listening to all these voices, these languages, broadcasting. There were these people standing, you know, and you’d hear languages that I still don’t know what they were, you know.

“People were broadcasting with great earnestness and you’d suddenly hear, ‘Scotland’ or ‘Scottish’ and ‘parliament’ and you’d think, ‘they are all talking about us’.”

Two years later, the parliament’s land was occupied by less welcome visitors in the form of a vigil camp of independence supporters. They took the parliament to court for the right to remain there, but Grice and his team won the right to evict them. He describes it as an important precedent for parliament to retain control of its own land.

“I felt very strongly if we did not win the court case for parliament to be able to use its land for parliamentary purposes, we were sunk.

“Frankly, if they’d won, anyone could come and set up a permanent encampment. Look out there. We look out many times and see people having their lunch, playing frisbee, if it’s warm, playing in the ponds, coming to give evidence, it lifts your spirits. That should not become some encampment, where anyone can come and say, ‘I’m taking this bit.’ So, I felt great pressure that we should succeed. And we did.”

Asked what he is most proud of, Grice hails the parliament’s modern apprenticeship scheme, which has brought “a range of 18, 19 and 20-year-olds coming in from a range of backgrounds”.

He also recalls moments where the parliament became a place where history is made. One breakfast during the Irish peace process was attended by Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley. Grice describes witnessing the former helping Paisley to his feet and across the Garden Lobby.

He also points to a “barnstorming” speech by Irish president Michael Higgins.

“It’s moments like that I’m immensely proud of. The institution created a place where people like that could come,” he says.

“Moments like that I think, ‘we’ve really created something’.”

As for Grice’s new career, he describes a love of academia which has grown since he served on Stirling University’s court around 15 years ago.

“One minute you’re a scruffy oik on a dodgy old motorbike and the next, you’re Mr Grice, with your own parking space. When did that happen?”

When the opportunity to lead Queen Margaret University came along, he threw his hat into the ring and was offered the job.

As someone who left school at 16, to be leading a university is quite an achievement.

“In my old school, no one would have believed you. I mean, of all the things they wouldn’t have believed it, it would be like, ‘What? Not him!’”

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