OBITUARIES : Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

Patrick Cosgrove,John Calder
Monday 20 February 1995 01:02 GMT

In December 1981 it became clear that Nicholas Fairbairn's political star was in the descendant. In that month a House of Commons secretary, with whom he had been having an affair, was allegedly found trying to hang herself from a lamppost outside his London home. He managed to stay on as Solicitor General for Scotland until the following year, when he had to decide whether to prosecute a gang of men accused of the multiple rape of a woman in Glasgow. Incautiously (but he was ever direct) he told newspaper reporters that he had found insufficient evidence against the men. He later confessed to the House of Commons that this had been an error of judgement. He resigned; and never held office again.

It was entirely appropriate that Fairbairn's ministerial career should end on a bizarre note, for he was a bizarre character. In the grey world of modern British politics he stood out, not merely because of the (often inconsistent) views he held, but because of the extravagantly flamboyant clothes he wore - all of them designed by himself: kilts and trews, and exotic cravats.

Behind this improbable faade there lurked a man of intelligence and courage, even if both the intelligence and the courage were frequently eccentric. Educated at Loretto School and Edinburgh University, he made his first political gesture at the age of 12, after the Labour election victory of 1945 (his instrument being a catapult), by smashing the windows of the Co-op at Musselburgh.

This youthful indiscretion did not prevent his being later called to the Scottish Bar and becoming a QC. Possessed of a modest fortune, he bought and restored Fordell Castle (which had been in his family's possession many generations previously), in Fife. He also acquired some 500 acres of adjoining farming land, and managed it with exemplary eff- iciency. He painted well, and wrote poetry moderately so. He then decided that the Tory Party needed him. After a couple of unsuccessful tries he won Kinross and West Perthshire (Lord Home of the Hirsel's old seat) in 1974. This victory was against the odds, as the Conservative Party's fortunes in Scotland were then in steep decline. Fairbairn held his seat through successive general elections and in 1992 had a majority of 2,094 over the candidate from the Scottish National Party. But, whatever could be said by way of criticism of his levity and his oddity, nobody could accuse him of neglecting his political duties.

In the House of Commons he first opposed capital punishment, then supported it in the case of murder of police officers, then opposed it again. He opposed the Rhodesian settlement of 1979-80, and organised finance for the defence of Colonel ``Mad Mike'' Hoare's men in court in South Africa. He wanted a legal ban on criminals' writing their memoirs, and he wanted England and Wales to adopt the Scottish legal system, with a Procurator Fiscal to decide whether a prosecution should be undertaken.

And there were many other opinions, always forthright and always elegantly - if arrogantly - argued. The last time I saw him he told me that Enoch Powell was the politician he admired above all in the modern age. His reason was Powell's independence of mind. Had he been around himself in 1965, Fairbairn said, he would have voted for Powell in the Conservative leadership election.

Fairbairn was a rare man. Perhaps he was eccentric, but had that quality that Powell has - an utter lack of fear.

Patrick Cosgrave

Nicky Fairbairn was one of the great eccentrics of his time, a complex character, admired for his many talents, but perhaps the principal victim of his own vanity, writes John Calder. Everything he did seemed to be aimed at a single goal: to attract attention.

At heart he was a libertarian who wanted to espouse human rights and civil liberties. Realising the temper of the times, he moved during the Seventies to the radical right: the clash this involved with his instinctive penchant for moral and personal freedom made him an anarchist of the right. He might have been successful in politics in the age of Pitt and Fox, but never in that of Margaret Thatcher.

At one point, during the Sixties, Fairbairn would carry in his pockets a brace of miniature silver pistols, about two inches long, and fire them off (they made a great noise) in restaurants and public places. They were loaded with blanks but he assured me they could hold miniature bullets and be lethal.

Fairbairn was a trial advocate at the Scottish Bar before he became a politician, and he was in every way a colourful one, but, brilliant as he was in finding unconventional ways of defending his clients, principally in criminal trials, his propensity for annoying the judge sometimes worked against the interests of those he was defending. Flamboyant in appearance, he designed his own clothes and was authoritative on the history of fashion: he would have been much happier in the court costumes of Tudor or Stuart times, or as a beau during the Regency, than in the late 20th century, when colour and originality in dress had no place in the upper class to which he firmly believed he belonged.

As a politician he was a loose cannon. He was Solicitor General for Scotland from 1979 to 1982, and he might have become Advocate General, but to forestall this the legal establishment found a way out for the Government, which was to raise a senior Scottish advocate, James Mackay, who was not a member of Parliament, to the peerage, so that he could exercise that senior office from the House of Lords.

Fairbairn's unconventional manner in court established his eccentricity and ensured a stream of cases that needed an unusual defence or where publicity and press attention would help.

When, as Organiser of the Edinburgh Festival Drama Conference of 1963, which featured the brief appearance of a nude as part of Britain's first theatrical "happening", I found myself prosecuted, Fairbairn was recommended by Laurence Dowdell, the Scottish Lord Goodman of the day. In a much- publicised trial with many eminent theatrical witnesses - he was in his element - Fairbairn won brilliantly; Bernard Levin, covering the case for the New Statesman, called it "Lady MacChatterley". Fairbairn successfully defended other Scottish obscenity cases and became chairman of the Scottish branch of the influential Defence of Literature and the Arts Society.

In those days, the iconoclastic Sixties, although he was the Conservative candidate for Edinburgh Central, which he twice unsuccessfully contested, he was and spoke of himself as a liberal, and he was certainly not popular with the Conservative establishment. It was a surprise when he was chosen to be the successor to the former Prime Minister Lord Home of the Hirsel, in Kinross and West Perthshire.

In the October 1974 general election he won with a small majority, and at the next election he nearly lost the seat to the SNP. It was the constituency's first-ever recount.

Nicky Fairbairn was a notorious ladies' man, anarchistically libertarian in his behaviour as well as his views. Both an intellectual and a social snob and making no bones about it, Fairbairn acquired Fordell Castle, near Dunfermline, and announcing that a barony went with the estate, styled himself Baron Fairbairn of Fordell, although his claim never went to the heraldic court of Lord Lyon for verification. His first wife, the Hon Elizabeth Mackay, was the daughter of Lord Reay. The story runs that, when staying at Fordell, Alec Douglas-Home admired the jewels in the master-bedroom and was flabbergasted to be told they did not belong to Fairbairn's wife. "They're mine," said Fairbairn proudly, clutching them to him. He rebuilt the ruined chapel at Fordell in order to hold services in it, usually conducted by himself.

Fairbairn was a peacock with a high opinion of his own accomplishments, but he had undeniable talents. As a painter he was conventional but competent, best at caricature: his portraits of judges on the Scottish bench were droll. He described himself in his final entry in Who's Who, as "Author, forester, painter, poet, TV and radio broadcaster, journalist, dress-designer, landscape gardener, bon viveur, raconteur and wit". His autobiography, A Life is Too Short, appeared in 1987.

Nicholas Hardwick Fairbairn, lawyer and politician, born Edinburgh 24 December 1933; called to the Scottish Bar 1957; MP (Conservative) for Kinross and Perthshire West 1974-83, Perth and Kinross 1983-95; QC (Scotland) 1972; HM Solicitor General for Scotland 1979-82; Kt 1988; married 1962 the Hon Elizabeth Mackay (three daughters, and one son and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved 1979), 1983 Suzanne Wheeler; died Dunfermline 18 February 1995.

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