Obituary: Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, advocate and politician

Born: 29 May, 1945. Died: 23 June, 2013, aged 68.

LORD Fraser of Carmyllie, who has died aged 68, was a prominent figure in Scottish public life for more than four decades. An advocate, MP and government minister, his start in life was both tragic and blessed with the kindness of strangers.

Fraser was only 12 when his mother Helen (nee Meiklejohn) died in Zambia, where his father, the Rev George Fraser – himself close to death – was serving as a Church of Scotland minister. The Tory peer Brendan Bracken, who held Fraser’s father in high regard, wrote to Sir Anthony Eden, the then prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, asking for help.

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Eden was a trustee for a special fund administering scholarships for Loretto School in Musselburgh, and at once agreed to help secure one for the orphaned boy. Within months, Sir Anthony had resigned as a result of the Suez Crisis, while Bracken passed away the following year. Until 1985, when Eden’s biographer Robert Rhodes James showed Fraser the correspondence relating to his scholarship, he had no idea that his benefactors had been two prominent Conservative politicians.

After that intervention from Downing Street, Fraser’s path was set. Following Loretto, he went up to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, graduating BA (Hons) and LLM (Hons), before returning to Scotland to study at the University of Edinburgh. He was called to the Scottish Bar in 1969, marrying his wife Fiona Macdonald Mair the same year.

The 1970s were spent immersed in Scots Law, including a spell lecturing in constitutional law at Heriot Watt University from 1972-74. Fraser also toyed with becoming an MP, contesting Aberdeen North at that year’s October election, while in 1976 he became chairman of the Scottish Conservative Lawyers Law Reform Group. In 1979, Fraser was appointed standing junior counsel for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, becoming a Queen’s Counsel in 1982.

But it was his election as a Conservative MP that launched Fraser’s long career in Scottish public life. The South Angus constituency had fallen to the SNP’s Andrew Welsh in October 1974, but Fraser hoped to win it back in 1979.

Located in a particularly beautiful part of Scotland, Fraser encountered a hill farmer during one of his first tours of its glens who told him: “Dinna bother lad, travellin’ ony further from here to Her Majesty’s estates at Balmoral – they’re aal yours.” Nevertheless, Fraser won with a majority of just 963.

He was thus part of a modest Tory revival north of the Border, later saying he was proud – along with five other new Scottish MPs – to have played a part in “turning back [the] flood tide of separatism”.

His maiden speech praised the repeal of the devolutionary Scotland Act (“a divisive, costly and bureaucratic scheme”) but warned Scottish affairs should “not be wholly neglected”.

“We may have cooled the temperature of politics in Scotland,” he told MPs, “but what at present may appear to be firm ground will turn out to be simply the crust of lava over a volcano which may erupt again unless we do something about it.”

But that eruption was some way off. Fraser, meanwhile, did not have to wait long to climb the greasy pole. After a stint as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Scottish Secretary George Younger, he then succeeded the colourful Solictor General for Scotland, Nicholas Fairbairn, when he was forced to resign in 1982. A year later, Fraser retained his seat – now known as East Angus – with a decisive majority of 3,527.

Fairbairn’s was a hard act to follow, and although Fraser – the youngest Solicitor General since Henry Dundas – could not provide the same entertainment value, contemporaries considered him “quiet, clever and nice … a background man” (Matthew Parris), others were impressed by his “careful, methodical, detailed approach” (the journalist Murray Ritchie), and even critics thought him a “nice chap, perhaps too nice for his own good”.

In 1985, Edward Pearce praised his “touch of humorous detachment”, although this was “more apparent away from the despatch box”. Wry humour, however, could not save Fraser in 1987. With neat electoral circularity he lost (by 1,544 votes) to Andrew Welsh, whom he had defeated eight years earlier. Many of those who lost their (Scottish) seats that year were eventually recognised (with honours) or brought back into government (via the House of Lords) by a typically thoughtful Iron Lady.

In 1989, Margaret Thatcher, then in her descendency, made him Baron Fraser (of Carmyllie in the District of Angus), a member of the Privy Council and Lord Advocate, Scotland’s most senior law officer. It was a natural progression from Fraser’s seven-year term as Solicitor General (he had remained in that office despite losing his seat two years earlier), while he also became an Honorary Bencher at Lincoln’s Inn.

Fraser’s three years as Lord Advocate were certainly eventful. He appeared for the UK in both the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights and also found himself directly responsible for the conduct of the investigation into the Lockerbie Pan Am disaster of December 1988.

In 1991, Fraser drew up the indictment against the two accused Libyans and issued warrants for their arrest.

Although there was no sign he had reservations about their guilt, five years after Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi had been convicted on 270 counts of murder and his co-accused acquitted, he cast doubt on the reliability of the main prosecution witness, Tony Gauci (who he himself had put forward), saying he was “not quite the full shilling” and “an apple short of a picnic”. The then Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd (also chief prosecutor at the Lockerbie trial), was not best pleased, and asked Fraser to issue a public statement of explanation.

Following the 1992 general election, Fraser was appointed minister of state for home affairs and health at the Scottish Office, progressing to the Department of Trade and Industry in 1995, where he covered export promotion and overseas investment before becoming minister for energy during the last year of John Major’s beleaguered administration. He then served as Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords, quitting in protest after William Hague sacked his boss, Lord Cranborne, following a dispute over the retention of hereditary peers in 1998.

In an attempt to draw a line under the controversy surrounding the rising cost of the Scottish Parliament’s new home at Holyrood, then First Minister Jack McConnell appointed Lord Fraser to chair a major public inquiry into the fiasco in May 2003. Over several televised sittings, the inquiry heard from dozens of witnesses, but its report – published in September 2004 – concluded there was “no single villain of the piece”. The ancient walls of the Canongate, added Fraser with typical humour, “echoed only to the cry of ‘It wisnae me!’”

In August 2007, Fraser was appointed to the Scottish Broadcasting Commission established by the SNP minority Scottish Executive, although his only other contribution to the independence debate was a rather eccentric pamphlet (published last year) called Divided We Stand: Scotland a Nation Once Again? This attracted headlines when Fraser suggested England might be forced to “bomb the hell out of Glasgow and Edinburgh Airports” in the event of a Yes vote.

Lord Fraser died suddenly on 23 June and is survived by his wife Fiona, one son and two daughters.