Sir Alex Fergusson

Farmer-turned-politician and former presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament

Born April 8, 1949;

Died July 31, 2018

SIR Alex Fergusson, who has died aged 69, was a gentleman farmer-turned-politician and, during the initial period of SNP leadership of the devolved Scottish Parliament, its Presiding Officer.

When Holyrood was first established in 1999, chairing its proceedings had largely been a formality, but in a hung Parliament with a minority administration, Sir Alex took the helm during an unprecedented period.

When, in early 2009, the Scottish Government attempted to pass its annual budget, the £33billion spending plan was tied on a vote of 64-64. Giving his position and the established procedure in such situations, Sir Alex used his casting vote for the status quo. The SNP budget, therefore, fell.

His full name – Alexander Charles Onslow Fergusson – betrayed roots in military-colonial aristocracy. Born in Leswalt, Wigtownshire, on 8 April 1949, he was a great-grandson of Sir James Fergusson, grandson of Sir Charles and nephew of Sir Bernard, all of whom served as Governors-General of New Zealand (as had another great-grandfather, the Earl of Glasgow).

Alexander would spend two years in New Zealand after leaving Eton, returning again as Presiding Officer several decades later (hosted by his first cousin, High Commissioner George Fergusson). On his first visit, he was mainly involved in agricultural work, his main occupation before going into politics. Fergusson returned to the UK to complete his studies at the Scottish Agricultural College before (after a short spell as a farm management consultant) taking over the family farm in 1971.

This was at Alton Albany on the edge of the Ayrshire village of Barr, where his father had been the minister. In the family since 1735, the estate had originally consisted of three tenanted farms and 7,500 acres, but death duties had taken their toll and a crippling overdraft meant it was reduced, by the late 1990s, to 1,250 acres supporting 1,000 Blackface ewes.

Sir Alex had first taken an interest in the Blackface Sheepbreeders’ Association in the mid 1970s, but found its Ayrshire meetings less than inspiring. A decade later he was back and, after initiating some democratic reforms, became branch chairman with a place on the body’s national council. In March 1997 he became president, although was typically self-effacing: “I am not a typical Blackface breeder who knows every ewe on the place.”

Although he had served as a community councillor, before being selected to stand for the new Scottish Parliament, Sir Alex had not been that politically active. More motivated by rural issues in the south-west of Scotland than ideology, he openly admitted that if he wasn’t successful, then he’d be forced to look again at his farming operation, his two eldest sons (Iain and Dougal) having chosen to pursue careers outwith agriculture.

Fortunately for him, he won a place via the South of Scotland regional list. Within months, he was leading opposition to a planned ban on fox hunting in Scotland, while as convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs Committee, he later called for the legislation to be thrown out as unworkable.

At his second election in May 2003, Sir Alex was one of three Conservatives to win a constituency seat, a welcome boost for a party still struggling with the new political landscape. Soon after, the then Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie appointed him agriculture and environment spokesman, which remained his focus for the next four years. At the 2007 Holyrood elections, meanwhile, he increased his majority from 99 to 3,333.

Initially, opposition parties were reluctant to nominate one of their number for the Presiding Officer’s chair. Sir Alex was also hesitant, believing he could not combine that with properly representing his constituents, and publicly ruled himself out. The vote was delayed and, having “satisfied” himself that his constituency would not be neglected, he finally agreed to stand, saying it would be an “extraordinary privilege”.

The only other candidate was the popular Independent MSP Margo MacDonald, who won 20 votes to Fergusson’s 108. Tabloid newspapers made much of the winner’s privileged background. “Toff at the top”, was the Daily Record’s verdict. “No, he’s not the football manager. He’s the Old Etonian who can trace his roots back to the 12th century Lord of Galloway.” But George Reid, the outgoing Presiding Officer, praised his successor as “a farmer rooted in his native soil, experienced in shepherding his flock in all weathers”.

Sir Alex lacked the public profile of his predecessors Sir David Steel and George Reid, but quickly established himself in the chair. A high for him was hosting the Queen as she marked the tenth anniversary of devolution by addressing the Scottish Parliament, a low was the “balls up” when he misread a numbered ball having been invited to make the draw for the Scottish Football League semi-finals. “As a lifelong Stranraer fan”, he joked, “I think everyone can be assured that there was no ulterior motive.”

In June 2010, Sir Alex announced his intention seek re-election, the first Presiding Officer to do so. Back on the Conservative benches after the 2011 election, he became something of a radical, supporting Murdo Fraser’s bid to launch a new centre-right party, and lending his support to the Devo Plus campaign for greater fiscal autonomy, an idea he also pursued as a member of the (party) Strathclyde Commission on greater powers for the Scottish Parliament. “Nothing,” he suggested, should be “off limits”.

A month after standing down from the Scottish Parliament in May 2016, he was knighted for services to politics, joking that it had given him “an ecstatically proud, happy and excited 96-year-old mother”. He remained active in south-west Scotland as president of the Scottish Campaign for National Parks and chairman of the Galloway Glens campaign.

Very much a “One Nation” Tory in the mould of the former Tory MP Sir Hector Monro, Sir Alex was genial, unflappable and universally well liked, as courteous towards political colleagues as he was to party staff. He died following a short illness and is survived by his wife Merryn and their three sons, Iain, Dougal and Christopher.