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Tuesday, September 14, 1999 Published at 09:38 GMT 10:38 UK


Pinstriped surfer rides Internet wave

Alex Allan: He'd like to teach the world to surf

Imagine a man in a pinstriped suit windsurfing up the Thames into central London.

If you were applying to be "Internet czar", with the task of cajoling UK businesses to get online - to teach the city to surf - could you hope for anything better on your CV?

Alex Allan sets out the task before him
Bizarrely it's not so far from the truth. Alex Allan, the man chosen by Prime Minister Tony Blair to be Internet czar, or "e-envoy" did just that.

The windsurfing stunt, which happened some years ago, was not part of Mr Allan's techno crusade. He was just - albeit ostentatiously - avoiding a transport strike. But it's done his colourful reputation no harm at all.

[ image: The Grateful Dead: Treasury stars]
The Grateful Dead: Treasury stars
For instance, how many senior civil servants would list the Grateful Dead as one of their recreations in Who's Who? Fewer still would have set up their own fan Website.

("I first saw the Dead in the mud at Bickershawe in 1972, and was so knocked out... I have been a Deadhead ever since," he says on his site, which had a long gestation, he says, "mainly because I have had a succession of busy day jobs". See Internet links on the right.)

Announcing Mr Allan's appointment, Mr Blair set out the challenge for the UK. He said un-wired individuals, such as himself, should get skilled. "Your future depends on it," he said.

And to business, he said: "If you don't see the Internet as an opportunity, it will be a threat. In two years' time the Internet could be as commonplace in the office as the telephone."

He appealed to entrepreneurs to invest in Britain's technological heartland in Cambridgeshire and "help make silicon fen a rival to silicon valley".

An unusual job for a civil servant, certainly, but of course Mr Allen is a usual sort of civil servant.

Born in 1951 - the son of Lord Allan of Kilmahew - he was educated at Harrow and Clare College Cambridge. He worked his way up through the civil service, until 1983, when he took off to Australia to become a freelance computer consultant.

[ image: Tony Blair announcing his latest czar]
Tony Blair announcing his latest czar
Returning to Whitehall two years later, he became principal private secretary to Nigel Lawson while Chancellor of the Exchequer. True to form, his Treasury office was covered with Grateful Dead posters.

And then in 1992 he landed the job which reputedly goes to the brightest civil servant of the generation - principal private secretary to the Prime Minister. As Mr Allan points out on his own site: "It's the same job as 'Bernard' in Yes, Prime Minister for those who watched that!"

Working as John Major's right hand man, he naturally had experience of affairs of state, including negotiating the divorce settlement of the Prince and Princess of Wales.

As an impartial civil servant, when Mr Blair was elected, Mr Allan started working for his new master. But he stayed in the job only three months, before returning to Australia, taking up a posting as the UK's high commissioner in August 1997.

[ image: Australian federal capital Canberra: Mr Allan's last posting]
Australian federal capital Canberra: Mr Allan's last posting
The announcement of who would be the successful candidate for the "e-envoy" job, a role heralded by the former Trade and Industry Secretary Peter Mandelson, had been long-awaited.

But as the government warned that UK businesses were lagging behind Australia, Canada and Scandanavia in their use of the Internet, it seems Mr Allan knows the challenge ahead.

"There are areas where we just don't seem to be getting the message across, where we just don't seem to be taking the technology as strongly as we should be," he said.

"Part of my new job is to help both the Prime Minister and [Department of Trade and Industry minister] Patricia Hewitt really push this across the government and across the country to make sure Britain really does become the best place to do business electronically."

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