Lord Selkirk of Douglas obituary

The most remarkable thing about the former Conservative Scottish Office minister James Douglas-Hamilton, who has died aged 81, is that he conducted a successful career, over a period of more than half a century and in four different political assemblies, without ever apparently losing a friend or making an enemy out of his opponents. His ability to traverse the traditional barriers in politics was the more unusual since “Lord James”, as he was universally known, was a scion of the premier dukedom of Scotland and operated in the arena of Scottish politics – one which is not normally noted for any deference to the nobility.

Douglas-Hamilton was an Edinburgh town councillor before being elected MP for Edinburgh West in October 1974, a seat he held for 23 years until the 1997 election wiped out every Conservative MP in Scotland. He was then made a life peer as Lord Selkirk of Douglas, and was an active member of the Lords until his retirement in July this year, an event which was unusually marked by appreciative applause from across the House for his years of service.

From 1999 until 2007 he was the MSP for the Lothians, serving as the Conservatives’ chief whip and business manager for two years and then as the party spokesman on, successively, education and housing.

He had the old world manners of an aristocrat. When he became a minister and was assigned a female driver from the government car pool, he repeatedly caused confusion by springing from his seat to open her car door when they arrived anywhere. On one occasion, when approached by a mugger on the street after a late night at the Commons, he reportedly warned his assailant: “I’m afraid I’m going to have to knock you out”, before doing so. His slight build, as befitted a flyweight former Oxford boxing blue, had clearly led his attacker to assume that he was an easy target.

Those who mistook this air of diffidence and self-effacing civility in their political dealings with Douglas-Hamilton would similarly learn to rue their error. He had studied history at Balliol College, Oxford and had a further degree in Scots law from Edinburgh University. He was not a political ideologue but had his own firm convictions and beliefs and an unshakeable commitment to the idea of public service and its practical application. The Edinburgh West relief road is one such testament to the area’s former MP.

He was born in Dungavel House, Strathaven, Lanarkshire, the second of the five sons of Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, the 14th duke of Hamilton, and the former Lady Elizabeth Percy, daughter of the 8th duke of Northumberland. His father was a much decorated pioneering aviator, who served in the RAF and made the first flight over Mount Everest in 1933.

In May 1941, just over a year before James’s birth, Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, had made his famed secret crash landing in Scotland – having failed to find the airstrip at Dungavel House – and asked for the 14th duke, claiming that he was on a peace mission to end the second world war.

The episode and its aftermath would later fascinate Douglas-Hamilton, who published two books on the subject (Motive for a Mission, 1971, and The Truth about Rudolf Hess, 1993) and who campaigned unsuccessfully for Hess’s release from Spandau prison in Berlin.

Douglas-Hamilton was a page to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and was educated at Eton. He practised as an advocate at the Scottish bar from 1968 to 1974, and served on Edinburgh city council from 1972 until 1974. In the general election of February 1974 he came third when he fought the then safe Labour seat of Hamilton, and he was subsequently elected for Edinburgh West in October 1974.

He was socially liberal and his maiden speech in the House of Commons was in opposition to the moves for a reintroduction of capital punishment for terrorist crime. Douglas-Hamilton was appointed an opposition whip in 1976 and, after Margaret Thatcher took office, became a senior government whip.

He spent four years (1983-87) as parliamentary private secretary to Malcolm Rifkind, first at the Foreign Office and then at the Scottish Office, when Rifkind became Scottish secretary, before himself being appointed a junior minister in the department. He was responsible for home affairs and the environment from 1987 until 1992, and then for education and housing until 1995. He was promoted to minister of state with responsibility for home affairs and health in 1995 and held that post until losing his seat in the 1997 election, when he was made a life peer.

Douglas-Hamilton had briefly faced a career crisis in 1994 when the death of an uncle, the 10th Earl of Selkirk, led to his inheriting the title and thus a seat in the House of Lords, which would have prevented him continuing to serve in the Commons. To avoid causing a political headache for John Major’s struggling government, Douglas-Hamilton immediately disclaimed the title in order to remain an MP, avoid a byelection and preserve the government’s dwindling majority.

His ministerial promotion the following year was a reward for this sacrifice and he was also made a member of the privy council and a QC in 1996. His inheritance of the earldom was challenged by a relative, but decided in his favour in 1996, which enables his eldest son to inherit.

Douglas-Hamilton was involved in a large number of charitable and voluntary bodies in Scotland. He was lord high commissioner, the monarch’s representative to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in 2012-13. He also wrote a book of memoirs, After You, Prime Minister (2009).

In 1974, he married Susie Buchan, the daughter of the 2nd Lord Tweedsmuir and granddaughter of the novelist John Buchan. She survives him, with their four sons, John, Charles and twins Harry and Jamie.

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