Malcolm Reid (1940-1945)

Died on 11th May 2020, aged 93

The following obituary appeared in The Times on 29th May 2020

Malcolm Reid was private secretary to two very different prime ministers: Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Harold Wilson, writing elegant speeches for the former and tidying up etiquette for the latter.

When Wilson, who owned a holiday home in the Isles of Scilly, arrived in No 10 in October 1964 there was a telegram from the Duke of Edinburgh reading: “Delighted to see that resident of Duchy of Cornwall is new tenant at Downing Street.” Wilson, unsure how to reply, scribbled instructions on it about “presenting humble duty”. Reid advised in a discreet note: “It is not necessary to present your humble duty to the Duke of Edinburgh (but only to the Sovereign).”

Reid, at the time an ardent Conservative though he was less so in later years, would mutter about “good Harold and bad Harold”, especially when it came to the Labour leader’s sense of humour. On one occasion, for example, Reid’s children watched Trooping the Colour from the windows of No 10. They were introduced to Wilson who noticed that James, aged six, had scabs and bruises on his legs and joked that the boy had been drinking, adding: “You should take more water with it next time.”

Malcolm Herbert Marcus Reid was born in Palmers Green, north London, in 1927, the second of four children of Marcus Reid, a senior official in the Inland Revenue, and his wife Winifred (nee Stephens), a civil servant.

He was educated and Merchant Taylors’ School, Northwood, and from there joined the Royal Navy, serving in HMS Defiance and HMS Ocean, whose captain described him as “a zealous and efficient young officer”. Perhaps he had in mind the occasion when he ordered Reid to act as umpire in a ship cricket match. One delivery struck the pad of the captain, who was batting and the bowler cried “Howzat?” Reid, who had little idea about the LBW law, judged the batsman out, an indiscretion for which he was convinced the captain never forgave him.

Reid went on to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St John’s College, Oxford, where he coxed the college boat, and then joined the Civil Service, starting at the Board of Trade. In 1957 he was appointed trade commissioner in Ottawa. The previous year he had married Eleanor Evans, who worked in the Treasury. She died in 1974 and the following year he married Daphne Griffin, who ran a PR business. She died in 2000. His third marriage, in 2004, was to Carol Stephens, a former nurse, who survives him with four sons from his first marriage: Francis, a retired accountant; James, a retired entrepreneur; Tim, a lawyer; and Robert, who works in the insurance industry.

Returning to London, Reid served again with the Board of Trade, making regular visits to Moscow where he soon grew to recognise the agents tailing him. He transferred to Downing Street in 163 and in 1967 was offered a posting to Athens, but Wilson intervened to insist that life under a Spanish dictator would be far more congenial than under the Greek colonels.

It was and it wasn’t. On one occasion he had to accompany Sir John Russell, the new ambassador to Spain, who was presenting his credentials to General Franco, its dictator. It was a full-fig occasion and the party travelled by horse-drawn carriage, bouncing over the cobblestones on a hot day, sitting downwind of nauseating equine flatulence. “Unfortunately, my father was suffering an attack of diarrhoea, from food poisoning”, recalled Reid’s son Francis, adding that plastic bags and handkerchiefs were frantically pressed into service.. “The entire experience was not a happy one because diplomatic protocol on meeting dictators doesn’t allow for such matter.”

Returning in 1972 to what was then the Department of Trade and Industry, Reid served under various secretaries of state, including Tony Benn, whose well-known consumption of tea he witnessed first-hand. By 1978 he was under-secretary at the Department of Trade, where he served as the insurance industry watchdog, keeping tabs on the solvency of companies after some high-profile collapses. He was then involved in setting up Lautro, the Life Assurance and Unit Trust Regulatory Organisation, serving as chief executive from 1986 to 1989. It later became the Personal Investment Authority.

In retirement, Reid lived in Cambridgeshire and kept a narrowboat, appropriately named Mandarin, that he would cruise along the River Great Ouse around St Ives. He enjoyed National Hunt racing and though he never owned a horse, for his 70th birthday his children leased a chestnut gelding for the day as a surprise. He had taken a box at Sandown Park and discovered his “ownership” only on arrival. To his astonishment Jovie King, ridden by Dominic Alers-Hankey, won the Barclays Bank handicap hurdle and the trophy remained on display for the rest of his life.


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