MY TRIBUTE TO SIR ALEX FERGUSSON
Alex took great pleasure in winding me up about the party function where I gave a vote of thanks that lasted longer than his speech, and failed to mention him by name!
There will be no repeat today, even though, I see this as a vote of thanks.
Thanks for the love Alex and his family so evidently shared; for the friendships so many of us here enjoyed; for the almost accidental political career which allowed him to fulfil his deep sense of duty and public service; and for everything he did for rural Scotland and the South West in particular.
Family, community and country were Alex’s guiding forces.
I was truly humbled when he asked me to give what he described as a Parliamentary Eulogy. I knew it would be difficult, and it is, but there was no point prevaricating with him and saying it was too soon to be thinking of such things. He knew it wasn’t, as he faced the last weeks of his life with an extraordinary calm and the same personal dignity he demonstrated throughout his public service.
There was no bitterness about the retirement he had so looked forward to, being taken from him. Instead a reflection on the joy of the life he had had with Merryn, the boys and their families, his own family, and, by his reckoning, an unexpected opportunity to have served his beloved constituency and to have been Presiding Officer of our Scottish Parliament.
Safe to say Alex wasn’t a career politician. Indeed, right to the end he referred to himself as an amateur. Perhaps it was because he had so much life experience rather than political experience before he was first elected, but the facts speak for themselves. He won a constituency seat against the odds, he increased his majority against the odds and held a reshaped constituency against the odds. He really was some amateur!
After the 1997 wipeout the Scottish Conservatives, in their wisdom, wanted to bring new people forward for the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections. So I first met Alex at a training and approval day for new candidates. We didn’t exactly hit it off in off in our first encounter. It was one of those sitting in a circle group interactions, and Alex was spouting forth on the need to preserve hen harrier habitat to the general nodding of other participants, when as he later said, some smart ass, asked him why this should matter at all to people struggling to get by in Glasgow. I don’t recall the answer, but perhaps surprisingly by the end of the day, we had begun a friendship, only enhanced by our selection as candidates in the neighbouring Galloway and Upper Nithsdale and Dumfries seats.
There was a lot for us both to learn. Alex taught me what a “sookit gimmer“ was (it’s a sheep by the way) and I opined that appearing in a dinner suit on the front of his first leaflet in Stranraer, maybe hadn’t been the best idea. The political tide wasn’t with us and we both lost in the constituencies, but were elected on the Regional list under the PR system.
Back then nobody really knew what a list MSP was and what they should be doing. After the count, Alex said to me, what do we do now? And without really thinking it through, I said, make ourselves relevant locally and start campaigning to win these constituencies in 2003.
And that’s what Alex did, but as ever, on his own terms. He wasn’t one for telephone canvasses and pledge letters or even party manifestos, he wanted to be judged on his own efforts. I did manage to persuade him that if people were to know what those efforts were, you had to tell them, and so he was introduced to the concept of the press release, all of which he wrote himself.
Alex’s word was his bond. If Alex said he would come to your meeting in the Machars on a Wednesday night, he would, even if that meant driving himself down from Edinburgh and back up for Parliament the next morning. Whoever you were, he would help you to the best of his abilities, handwriting out all his constituency letters before they were typed. Indeed, our secretary Gillian Gillies, did a remarkable job to transition Alex from “out on the hills” sheep farmer to being vaguely office trained, and I know Gillian, how much Alex valued your continuing love and support in recent weeks.
Only an MSP for a matter of days, Alex first attracted national attention when he faced down Donald Dewar on the issue of a faith element to the Scottish Parliament’s proceedings. The mood at the time was not to do things the Westminster way and Donald Dewar was very opposed to there being the equivalent of prayers. Not just as a son of the manse, but because of his own personal faith, Alex stood firm, to do what he considered to be the right thing, took the issue to a vote and won. Time for Reflection has become an integral part of the Parliamentary week.
In the Scottish Parliament’s early days, sketch writer Rab McNeill nicknamed Alex, Hercules, which I suspect he rather liked, on the basis of his stature. However, Alex’s efforts were to prove Herculean. When Dumfries and Galloway was blighted by Foot and Mouth in 2001, the air thick with smoke from the pyres, livestock virtually wiped out and farmers prisoners on their own farms, Alex stepped forward and was the voice for our beleaguered agriculture communities and businesses. He make sure their voice was heard in Parliament or with Government officials overseeing the cull, and led the campaign for compensation payments. I well remember him heading up a demonstration outside Scottish Enterprise in Dumfries, but of course, whilst effective, it was conducted with the utmost civility.
And as our compadre from our offices on the Mound, Murray Tosh so rightly observed in the eloquent obituary he penned for the Scotsman, behind all these public actions, Alex was day and night acting as counsellor and social worker to individual farmers and businesses. Those who benefitted from his support have never forgotten it.
Alex emerged from this period widely recognised as a powerful voice for rural Scotland, particularly the South West and it contributed to what is now his legacy -a Scottish Parliament for the whole of Scotland, where rural issues have their place. He enhanced that legacy further as the fair and moderate Chair of the Rural Affairs Committee and, of course, as Presiding Officer.
Alex had serious reservations about taking on that role because of the impact it would have on his family and his ability to represent his constituency. I like to think I was one of those who persuaded him to stand, and not just because I wondered what odds you would have got in 1999 on an old Etonian being Presiding Officer, but because, like others, I knew he could be relied on to put the Parliament first in what was then an unprecedented situation. With the two biggest parties separated by only one seat (and so not wanting to put forward a Presiding Officer candidate) and deep uncertainty over how and by whom the government would be formed and whether and how it would operate, it is not surprising that MSPs turned to someone they could trust. Someone fair and non-partisan. That’s why for many Alex was the obvious choice in the vote in which he saw off the late Margo Macdonald convincingly. However, the outcome did see Margo hone her role as the Scottish Parliament’s one woman equivalent of the House of Lords, which Alex took in good spirit, even if joy did not always abound in his heart when Margo rose to make a point of order.
Always important, of course, the role of Presiding Officer became pivotal in that session of Parliament. Casting votes - very rare up to that point - became a regular occurrence. Most famously Alex used his casting vote, in line with convention, to vote down the government’s budget bill. There was, as you would expect, high political drama. You might well have expected recriminations to be flying in the direction of the Presiding Officer. But his decision was respected and his motivation accepted. Indeed Alex and the government’s chief whip immediately sat down calmly and discussed a way forward. That calm determination to do the right thing and ready willingness to work to find a way forward summed up Alex’s approach to his successful term as Presiding Officer.
Alex also became a great ambassador for the Scottish Parliament - both at home and abroad. He undertook a programme of visits to local communities and schools throughout Scotland. On one such visit he was challenged by some local farmers to shear a sheep. They were surprised and impressed when he took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and proceeded, expertly, to shear said sheep! The record doesn’t state whether it was a sookit gimmer.
He also led a delegation on a hugely successful visit to New Zealand - a country which held both fond personal memories and huge family significance for Alex and which had provided the inspiration for many aspects of the way the Scottish Parliament works. His visit deepened that relationship and in our last conversations he took a great interest in my recent visit there.
He was also a great supporter of Scotland’s role in Malawi and did a huge amount to cement the relationship with the Malawian Parliament. Alex’s motivation was, as ever, entirely honourable. But, I think it is fair to say that pop superstar Annie Lennox’s role as the Parliament’s then special envoy to Malawi only served to sharpen Alex’s enthusiasm!
It didn’t all go smoothly. I was in our shared office in Thornhill when a large pair of glasses were delivered courtesy of the Daily Record on the day its headline read “It was hardly the Krypton Factor - this lot couldn’t be trusted to run a raffle!”
It referred to the CIS Cup semi-final draw when Alex and the former First Minister had to pull 4 balls from a hat. Alex forgot his reading glasses and the rest is history. But being the constituency man to the core, Alex was much more concerned that the following weekend, having been asked out into the centre circle to draw the Stranraer Football Club lottery, he pulled out the Chairman’s ticket to widespread booing around the ground. He stayed away from football draws after that.
Alex wouldn’t want me to convey the impression he was any kind of saint. He wasn’t. He was his own harshest critic and self-effacing to a fault. The most intolerant of drivers; he could be very inflexible, once arrangements had been made: obsessive about punctuality; and stubborn, when he had formed a view. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, but had the skill of hiding it very well - most of the time.
What he did do, even if he didn’t agree with you was to respect your point of view and your right to hold it. In all the debates he took part in on contentious issues like fox hunting, land reform or independence, Alex never saw opponents as liars or traitors or to be personally denigrated. Instead, he wanted the judgements and decisions to be made on the facts and arguments put forward. He respected democratic choices whether he agreed with them or not.
In our last face to face conversation, he reflected that after 20 years of a Scottish Parliament, which he did so much to champion and shape, he was deeply disappointed by how mature and civil political discourse in Scotland had not developed as he had hoped in that time.
There is so much more I could say. ME campaigner; Parliamentary Slimmer of the Year; Cricket Team stalwart; folk singer at the Festival Fringe; Royal Highland Show President, proudly promoting Dumfries and Galloway despite having one of the wettest shows on record; and respected Burnsian - like the great man himself, at much at home in the Howff as the parlours of Edinburgh.
Like all those present, Alex was deeply moved by Sheena Wellington’s rendition of Burns’ A Man’s a Man at the official opening of the Scottish Parliament, singing along (and he was a good singer) including to that penultimate verse :-
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.
Alex was by any standards a “belted knight”, not just because of his own deserved knighthood, but his distinguished family history, which he rarely made reference to, other than his continual amusement that in every single conversation he had with our then MSP colleague Lord James Douglas- Hamilton, Lord James would say, “I knew your Uncle Bernard, you know”.
Yet, Alex was also that honest man, the man of independent mind, the man o’ sense, that Burns so valued. Never succumbing to stereotype, Alex proved it is was indeed possible to be a Belted Knight and a Man o’ worth. The proper gentleman as Ruth Davidson described him.
I can’t pen an Epitaph as poignantly apt as Burns did for another honest man, William Muir, but I can say this:-
Here’s to the memory of
The Rt Hon Sir Alexander Charles Onslow Fergusson,
Loving husband and family man,
Self-identifying amateur politician,
Devoted constituency MSP,
Distinguished Presiding Officer of our Scottish Parliament, Champion of rural Scotland,
and the most thoroughly decent man I’ve ever known.
For a’ that , an a’ that.