Lord Gray Of Contin

Popular Conservative minister


James Hector Northey Gray, businessman and politician: born Inverness 28 June 1927; MP (Conservative) for Ross and Cromarty 1970-83; Assistant Government Whip 1971-73; Lord Commissioner, HM Treasury 1973-74; Minister of State for Energy 1979-83; PC 1982; created 1983 Baron Gray of Contin; Minister of State, Scottish Office 1983-86; Lord-Lieutenant for Inverness 1996-2002; married 1953 Judith Brydon (two sons, one daughter); died Inverness 14 March 2006.

Hamish Gray, albeit he never reached cabinet rank, was one of the most significant ministers in Margaret Thatcher's government between 1979 and 1983, on account of the fact that he held the portfolio of Minister of Energy responsible for the North Sea oil industry. During that period it was Gray who chaired many ministerial committees making vital decisions on the future of the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC) and matters associated with the industry on which the British economy was to depend.

On 15 November 1982, his opposite number, the former minister Dr J. Dickson Mabon, asked him if he would make a statement in the House of Commons on the future of the BNOC. Mabon asked,

May we have an absolute assurance that there will be no suggestion at a later stage of any privatisation, however minor, of the assets of the BNOC, slender though they are? Is there not some genuine concern about the viability of the corporation as a trading organisation given that it has only the right of trading?

Gray's reply was:

I have made it clear from the outset that the BNOC would continue its role as a trading arm and that it will be 100 per cent government-owned. There is no change in our view on that. As the largest oil trader in the North Sea, the BNOC will continue to provide challenging opportunities to its staff. It has made a small profit in the past and we see no reason why it cannot continue to do so.

Hamish Gray was brave as a politician in resisting the ethos at the beginning of the Thatcher era in surrendering British interests on relatively cheap terms to the multinational oil companies. In this he pleased his constituents in Ross and Cromarty, where he was MP from 1970. What did not please his constituents - and led to his eventual defeat by the youthful Charles Kennedy standing as an SDP candidate in 1983 - was the loss of the aluminium smelter at Invergordon. Gray had to take responsibility, although ministerially he had nothing to do with the decision to close the plant. Another factor was the addition of the traditionally Liberal Isle of Skye, which came into the constituency in an important boundary change. (Actually, Gray increased his share of the vote).

In spite of personal dismay that his political service - I do not say career, because he was not a careerist - was brought to an end, he remained ever positive and became a most useful member of the House of Lords after he was raised to the peerage as Lord Gray of Contin in 1983. From 1983 he was Minister of State at the Scottish Office, and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Secretary of State for Scotland, recalls him as

a most competent, conscientious and reliable colleague. His strength was with people, probably more than policy. He was an easy colleague, but yet not one that you could ever take for granted. You could count on him to fight his corner and pursue his cause and he didn't do so unless he thought it was necessary.

Between 1984 and 1986, Gray was the Principal Government Spokesman on Energy in the Lords, following a short period as Principal Spokesman on Employment.

He was born James Hector Northey Gray in 1927, the son of James Northey Gray, a well-known Justice of the Peace and Inverness businessman in the construction industry, and went to Inverness Royal Academy. After National Service with the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, where he was the only officer who had not been to a public school, he maintained a lifelong contact with the Scottish infantry regiments. This gave him a bond with his Conservative contemporaries George Younger, later Secretary of State for Scotland and Minister of Defence, but a National Service subaltern in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and Alick Buchanan-Smith, a subaltern in the Gordon Highlanders who was to be Gray's ministerial colleague in the Scottish Office.

Hamish Gray entered the family business and became prominent in the Inverness Chamber of Commerce, in 1965 being elected to the Inverness Town Council. Then, in 1970, in a closely fought contest with the Liberal MP Alistair Campbell, Gray triumphed in Ross and Cromarty by 801 votes, which increased to a substantial personal victory in the 1979 general election.

Gray made his mark by campaigning vigorously for the Kessock Road Bridge. I remember a sweaty July night when he began an adjournment debate at 1.24am, kicking off his parliamentary campaign. He claimed that the Kessock Road Bridge was a subject that was causing both anxiety and annoyance to thousands throughout the Highlands of Scotland. There were delays over the construction of the proposed bridge over the Moray Firth, which would link the A9 between Inverness and Ross and Cromarty. "To date, however, the tale of the bridge is less than satisfactory," he said,

for, while the planning for the roadworks has proceeded, the forward thinking about the Kessock Bridge has been, to say the least, painfully slow. From the outset, it must have been obvious to the Roads Department of the Scottish Development Department that the Kessock Bridge would not only be the most expensive single project in the whole development but it would be the most demanding in engineering, design and skill.

One of Gray's qualities was persistence and he would come back time and again to the Kessock Bridge, as he did on 30 November 1977, when he finally won the assurance that the bridge would be started the following spring.

In 1974, he successfully piloted through the Education (Mentally Handicapped Children) (Scotland) Bill. This was a considerable achievement, as it gave statutory recognition for the first time to the needs of the mentally ill and mentally handicapped children. As a member of the committee, I really felt that Gray had a deep emotional and creditable interest in the subject.

In 1994 he became Vice Lord-Lieutenant for Lochaber, Inverness, Badenoch and Strathspey and in 1996 became Lord-Lieutenant and the Queen's Representative. Among the many useful, if unsung, positions that he held was the presidency of the British-Romanian Chamber of Commerce. But I shall always remember him as a government whip and an opposition whip, who could be tough in protecting the position of the Conservative Party, but who never ever went back on his word once it had been given.

Hamish Gray was as straight as a die and for that reason enjoyed considerable personal popularity among the Scottish group of Labour MPs. Perhaps his wit and his Highland charm also contributed to his popularity.

Tam Dalyell

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