Obituary: Sir Alex Fergusson, third Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament 2007-2011, nicknamed ‘Hercules’, Conservative MSP for Galloway and West Dumfries, farmer

Sir Alex Fergusson has died at the age of 69
Sir Alex Fergusson has died at the age of 69
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Sir Alex Fergusson, former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. Born: 8 April, 1949 in Leswalt. Died: 31 July, 2018, aged 69

Alexander Charles Onslow Fergusson was born in 1949 in Leswalt, in Wigtownshire, the son of Simon Fergusson and Auriole Hughes-Onslow. His father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who became a Church of Scotland Minister at Leswalt, and Barr in Carrick in the deep rural south of Ayrshire, where Alex was raised.

Sir Alex gained a considerable reputation in farming circles before entering politics

Sir Alex gained a considerable reputation in farming circles before entering politics

Alex was educated at Eton College and at the Scottish Agricultural College at Auchincruive. In 1971, he took over management of the family estate in Barr, and earned a considerable reputation in farming circles, becoming in due course President of the Blackface Sheepbreeders’ Association as well as being involved in a range of other farming and rural organisations. For a time, he and his wife, Merryn, were partners in “Splinters”, a successful restaurant in Girvan in South Ayrshire.

It was this broadening experience in farming and land issues which interested him in public life, as he became increasingly conscious that discussion of rural affairs in Scotland tended to focus on the Highlands and Islands. As a native of the south-west, he felt that his own region had distinct interests and issues which needed to be represented more effectively.

He first dipped his toe in politics in 1995, when he stood unsuccessfully as a Conservative candidate for the South Carrick ward, where he lived in Ayrshire. His appetite was whetted by this first experience of electioneering and, when the new Labour government pressed ahead with Scottish devolution, he applied successfully to become an approved Scottish Conservative candidate for the Scottish Parliament. He was selected in 1998 for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale constituency, with which he had close connections, and launched his campaign there with characteristic enthusiasm.

Alex did not win the constituency in 1999, although he came a very respectable second to the SNP’s Alasdair Morgan, the sitting MP, who won by 3,201 votes; but Alex was one of four Conservatives elected to the first Parliament for the South of Scotland Region. He continued to work in the Galloway constituency for the next four years, managing despite the potential clash of interests to maintain excellent personal relations with Alasdair Morgan.

Alex made an immediate impact after he was elected. As a son of the manse, he was keen to see an element of religious observance included in Parliamentary procedure, and he proposed a motion which resulted in the Parliament agreeing to start business each week with a non-denominational Time for Reflection.

His physical presence and fluent oratory made an early impact in the Parliament, not least with the sketch-writers who followed the Parliament closely in its early days, one dubbing him “Hercules”, a nickname which amused and embarrassed him. Alex knew he had to learn his craft, and set out to do so by raising a range of issues relevant to Dumfries and Galloway in particular, but to rural Scotland in general.

In due course, Alex became convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs Committee, which helped establish his authority on rural issues and also allowed him to make his mark as an excellent and extremely fair committee convener, which undoubtedly recommended him to the Parliament as Presiding Officer in 2007.

In his committee chairmanship, Alex had to manage highly charged debates on a number of issues, including Land Reform and the Wild Mammals Bill. In the latter case, Alex had to make a number of difficult decisions on whether to accept a series of amendments moved by the Bill’s sponsor, Mike Watson, and he won respect by making his own decisions on which amendments to accept, and by his insistence on being guided by what he saw as the will of Parliament, as expressed in the debate on the Bill’s second reading.

Early in that Parliament, rural Scotland became engulfed in the Foot and Mouth crisis which delayed the calling of the 2001 General Election. Alex soon emerged as the best-informed and most authoritative contributor to debates and questions on the Scottish Executive’s handling of the crisis, fighting hard for the interests of the farmers and rural businesses being devastated by the intensive cull implemented by the UK and Scottish governments.

While he handled himself in public with great authority and dignity, Alex was also spending his entire waking existence in this period meeting with, and speaking on the telephone to, individual farmers and businessmen from all over Scotland. He offered advice, support, and a genuinely sympathetic hearing, reflecting his own experience of farming, and raised their issues whenever he could with ministers, in the debating chamber and in the lobbies.

Alex worked tirelessly and selflessly for the embattled communities of south west Scotland in particular. He was rewarded in 2003, when Galloway and Upper Nithsdale elected him as its constituency MSP by the wafer-thin majority of 99 votes. To the end of his political career Alex worked tirelessly for his constituency, relishing his engagement with the down-to-earth people of the south-west, and he was fond of saying, when under pressure of work, or when things were not going well for the Conservative Party politically, that it was his constituency work which kept him going. He refused in 2007 to be placed on the Conservative “list” for the South of Scotland, resolving to be a constituency MSP or nothing.

Alex continued in the second Parliament to serve his Party as a rural spokesman, and his decency, sincerity and fairness meant that his stature grew across the board. He was deservedly re-elected in Galloway in 2007 with an increased majority of 3,333, in an election which produced no clear result, and a minority SNP administration. The respect he had earned across the Parliament was such that he was sounded out about becoming the Parliament’s Presiding Officer, and that, once he had agreed to serve, having assured himself that he would still be able to represent his constituents, he was elected to the position by the decisive margin of 108 votes to 20.

As the new Presiding Officer, Alex dealt with all the intricacies and delicacies of that Parliament and its minority government, showing characteristic fairness, humour and good judgment. He had to use his casting vote on a regular basis in a finely-balanced Parliament but he carefully followed precedent, and never lost the support of the Chamber, not even of the SNP administration when he had to use it to defeat their budget. On that occasion, he sat down afterwards with the SNP chief whip, to work out a way forward, and without any recrimination.

Alex was an excellent ambassador for the Scottish Parliament, and for Scotland. He visited schools and communities throughout the country, and led a delegation to New Zealand, where he had spent a couple of years in his youth. He worked to develop the Parliament’s relationship with the Malawi Parliament. He was as comfortable with heads of state and prime ministers as he was with school children, farmers and people from his constituency.

He found the role of Presiding Officer stimulating, and enjoyed it thoroughly, but he always kept his feet firmly on the ground, especially the ground of Galloway, and, in the SNP surge of 2011, he held his revised constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries, albeit with a reduced majority of 862 votes.

This in itself was a remarkable outcome. His predecessors had followed the Westminster precedent of standing down after serving as Presiding Officer, but Alex was determined to go on representing his constituents. He stood as a Conservative candidate, and planned to return as an ordinary backbench MSP, although he was quickly back in the front-line as the Party’s Rural spokesman. He stood down finally in 2016, having for five years declined to benefit from the pension he had earned as a Presiding Officer, donating the money instead to local charities.

In the 2016 Queen’s birthday honours, he was awarded a knighthood for services to politics, the Scottish Parliament and public life in Scotland. He expressed surprise at this ‘extraordinary’ honour which left him rather stunned; but no-one else was surprised, as the honour was richly deserved as was his appointment as President of the Royal Highland Show for 2012. Even after his term as an elected member had ended, Alex stayed on in the house which he had bought in Galloway, and remained immersed in local life. He worked hard to elect his successor, Finlay Carson, as the new Conservative MSP in 2016 and Alistair Jack as the Conservative MP in 2017, but, while loyal to his Party, he was never really in politics to act as a politically partisan representative.

For Alex Fergusson, political life was about service, working for the people of his rural constituency and championing the interests of rural Scotland as a whole. He formed friendships and alliances across all the political parties, and he won respect and affection from all who knew him. In his last activities in Galloway, as a patron of the Galloway National Park Association, campaigning to create a third National Park, and Chairman of the Galloway Glens Partnership Board, he continued to work with charities, councillors, MSPs, MPs and local groups and individuals in the interest of his community. He leaves a huge gap in the life of Dumfries and Galloway, and a void which cannot be filled in the lives of his family and countless friends.

Alex Fergusson had a zest for life. He was athletic in his youth, playing cricket, squash and curling, and he was a passionate follower of Scotland’s rugby team. He was an enthusiast for traditional Scottish music and dancing, and played the guitar and sang well himself. He admired the Yorkshire folk singer, Kate Rusby, and he had recently discovered the American country band, Lady Antebellum. He enjoyed a rare steak, a good red wine and a malt whisky. He completely lacked self-importance, had a strong sense of self-deprecating humour, and was loyal to his friends and utterly devoted to his wife, Merryn, and their family.

Alex bore his short illness with characteristic dignity and courage, spending his last days seeing his many friends for a last time, and being looked after by his loving family. He is survived by his wife, Merryn, his three sons, Iain, Dougal and Christopher, and their families, his mother Auriole, his sister, Henrietta, and his brother, John.

MURRAY TOSH