Obituary: Sir Russell Fairgrieve

RUSSELL FAIRGRIEVE held high office in the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and was an influential figure in many of the significant events of the party's post-war history. Had he lived just a few more weeks, he would have witnessed the reality of a Scottish parliament, a cause in which he had steadfastly believed for over 30 years.

Fairgrieve was born in 1924 into a prosperous mill-owning Borders family. Educated at St Mary's School in Melrose, and later at Sedbergh, he saw war service as a commissioned officer in the 8th Gurkha Rifles and continued his military service in the TA with the King's Own Scottish Borderers until 1963.

Returning from army service, he embarked upon his twin careers of business and politics. After studying at the Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels, he gained experience in the textile industry before following his father into the long-established family yarn-spinning firm of Laidlaw & Fairgrieve. He ran the Ladhope Mills in Galashiels, becoming a director of Dawson International after it acquired their firm, and he retained a lifelong interest in the textile industry.

Nineteen forty-seven saw his incipient interest in politics. Joining the local branch of the Young Unionists, he had within three years become convenor of the powerful eastern division of the Scottish Young Unionists. At the comparatively young age of 25, he was elected to the Galashiels Town Council and Selkirk County Council. He rose through the ranks of the senior Scottish party and was chairman of the Eastern Divisional Council at the time of the controversial and, in some quarters, bitterly opposed creation of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Association, whose first President he became in 1965.

With a secure business base, Russell Fairgrieve continued to serve the Scottish Party as vice-chairman (for this he was appointed CBE in 1974). Following the Scottish National Party victory at Hamilton, Edward Heath reappraised Conservative policy on constitutional change, and Fairgrieve was there to offer the timely advice to catch the mood of the Scottish people when Heath made his Declaration of Perth in 1968 committing the Conservative Party to create a Scottish assembly. Although the party subsequently ditched this commitment, and is widely believed to have forfeited electoral support thereby, Fairgrieve remained true to his belief in devolution.

It was natural that he should seek election to Parliament. His local seat of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles had been captured by David Steel at a by-election in 1965 and the Borders association selected Fairgrieve for the 1970 election in preference to the young Malcolm Rifkind. It is one of life's little ironies that the Dawson group, which owned Laidlaw & Fairgrieve, announced redundancies during the campaign, enabling David Steel to scrape back, just. In 1974, the abrupt announcement by Col "Mad Mitch" Mitchell that he would not be seeking re-election, created the parliamentary vacancy that Fairgrieve had long sought. He served diligently as MP for West Aberdeenshire until 1983 when he left Parliament to resume a business career in which his vision and acumen were widely recognised.

Margaret Thatcher appointed him Chairman of the Scottish Party in 1975, a duty which he combined with that of the Scottish Whip in a parliamentary party which had been ravaged by SNP victories in its rural heartland. Fairgrieve set about his duties with gusto, producing the seminal Fairgrieve Report which heralded much closer co-operation with Central Office in London. He had to battle with entrenched opposition to the loss of independence for the Scottish party, but he stomped the country arguing that it was better to be plugged into the 240 volts of Smith Square than the Scottish party's 12-volt accumulator.

He served Thatcher loyally, though his brand of Conservatism was not hers. As architect of the party's campaign to recover seats lost to the Nationalists, he had the satisfaction of winning back seven seats in 1979, and was rewarded with junior ministerial appointment at the Scottish Office under George Younger until 1981, when he left government with a well-merited knighthood. He maintained his support for the European Movement, serving as chairman of the Scottish Council, and co-operated willingly and publicly with other politicians on issues which he believed straddled party boundaries.

Russell Fairgrieve was a kindly man but one who did not mince his words. On issues like Europe and devolution which divided the Conservative Party, he was outspoken and uncompromising (the party's growing Euro-scepticism troubled him), yet those who disagreed with him readily acknowledged his sincerity, warmth and humour.

Later life robbed him of his mobility, but he lost neither his spirit nor his commitment to the causes about which he cared. He enjoyed a long and happy marriage and is survived by his wife, Millie, a son and three daughters. A lady of sparkle and charm, Millie was a constant support and, when the pressures of politics lessened, they were able to enjoy many shared pursuits like their love of fine art, in their beautiful home above the Tweed. Russell Fairgrieve fairly epitomised the best traditions of public life in Scotland.

Michael Hirst

Thomas Russell Fairgrieve, businessman and politician: born Galashiels, Selkirkshire 3 May 1924; CBE 1974; MP (Conservative) Aberdeenshire West 1974-83; Chairman, Conservative Party in Scotland 1975-80; Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Scottish Office 1979-81; Kt 1981; married 1954 Millie Mitchell (one son, three daughters); died Berne, Switzerland 17 February 1999.

Comments