Rt Hon Sir Alex Fergusson – an appreciation

Rt Hon Sir Alex Fergusson – an appreciation

by Murdo Fraser
article from Wednesday 1, August, 2018

THE SAD DEATH this week of my great friend and former colleague, Sir Alex Fergusson, leaves the Scottish Conservatives – and Scottish public life – without one of its most significant, and well-respected, figures.  Alex was a committed devolutionist, even at a time when such views were unfashionable within the Scottish Tories, but he won friends by pursuing his political objectives with commitment and vigour.  The tributes that have been paid to him from across the political spectrum are testament to his winning personality and character.

Alex might have appeared to strangers as the archetypal Tory – landowner, farmer, old Etonian, Church of Scotland elder, Chairman of the Blackface Sheep Breeders’ Association – but in person he defied these stereotypes.  He was anything but a career politician, coming to elected office comparatively late in life, with a career behind him in agriculture and a grown-up family.  His passions were for the rural communities he represented so well, and for Scotland more generally.

Elected in 1999 as one of the first intake to the new Scottish Parliament as a regional list MSP for the South of Scotland, such was his commitment to the South-West that he won the Galloway & Upper Nithsdale seat from the SNP in 2003 – by a whisker.  He continued to represent the area undefeated until his retirement in 2016.

When Holyrood needed a Presiding Officer in 2007, with a new SNP minority Government, it was Alex who we turned to.  As Convenor of the Rural Affairs Committee he had a proven track record of fair dealings from the chair. In four years he faced the challenge of using his casting vote – once, famously, to defeat a SNP Budget – but no-one ever questioned his integrity or fairness.  He was a straight guy.  As I recall, his greatest concern on being elected to the office was that it meant he would have to buy a suit (he did not possess one!)

One area where Alex excelled was in representing the Parliament to visitors.  He had an easy charm and an innate ability to find the right words for any occasion.  His welcome to Her Majesty the Queen, at the Parliament’s opening in 2007, where he recounted his Minister father’s experience of preaching at Crathie Kirk, had the chamber in stitches.

He was as comfortable abroad as he was at home.  I had the pleasure of accompanying him to Tartan Week in New York, and on to Quebec and North Carolina, whilst he was Presiding Officer, and in a busy week of engagements he struck the right tone in every encounter.  

Alex was a true believer in devolution, happily admitting that he had voted Yes in the 1997 Referendum – a stance hardly likely to endear himself to Tory audiences in the early days of the Scottish Parliament.  Of course this led him to support greater fiscal devolution, which made us allies in a Party largely hostile to the notion.  When I stood for the vacant Party leadership in 2011 on a platform of extending devolution he was an enthusiastic supporter, but not before he had first carefully considered the merits of all the candidates.  Once committed, he did all he could to help.

What I will miss most about Alex is his friendship, good humour, and wise counsel.  He was always a source of sound advice, ready with a kind word and encouragement. Even after he stepped down from front-line politics, we kept in close contact.

Alex was determined to retire while still young and active enough to enjoy years with Merryn, his children and grandchildren. Sadly, the fates were not to be so kind. When he learned of the cancer diagnosis that gave him just weeks to live, he was typically stoical and philosophical, thankful he had had a happy year travelling the world without worries, and glad that he had some time to say goodbye to family and friends.

And so, like Bunyan’s Mr Valiant-for-Truth, “he passed over, and all the Trumpets sounded for him on the other side”.  We are left to mourn, and miss, a friend who left us too soon.


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