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Tribute to Lord Selkirk of Douglas

Lord Selkirk of Douglas: 31 July 1942 – 28 November 2023 | Image courtesy of UK Parliament

Lord Forsyth

Lord Forsyth

4 min read

A man both canny and loyal who disclaimed his earldom in order to support his besieged prime minister, James Selkirk was a highly effective politician driven by a deep determination to serve his country

James Selkirk was one of these characters that you meet in life who will never be forgotten for all the right reasons.

Ask about him to anyone who knew him and they will tell you about his courtesy, kindness and impeccable manners. There was another side to Lord James as he was affectionately known.

He was a highly effective politician and minister driven by a deep determination to serve his country. He had delivered the Skye Bridge and resisted the campaign against tolls without which it would never have been constructed. I felt on returning to the Scottish Office as secretary of state that the original plan for Her late Majesty the Queen to open it had to be abandoned as the project had become so controversial. I proposed that James should have the honour of doing so as it had been his efforts that delivered it. No he insisted I must do it. It was only when I turned up on my birthday to be confronted by Robbie the Pict and 1,000 protestors that I realised he was a far more skilful politician than I had given him credit for.

Duty was the only four letter word that ever crossed his lips

When we were junior ministers together in the Scottish Office he suggested we share a government car to save the taxpayers money. We had a wonderful old school driver. One night she was taking me home after a late night in the Commons when she said I had to have a word with his Lordship, that all the drivers were talking about it and if it went on she would have to resign. There had been a series of sex scandals involving ministers and I can still recall the feeling of disbelief and alarm that filled my senses as I asked her what has Lord James been doing to you? “He keeps opening the car door for me,” was the response. So typical of James.

At Oxford he was president of the Union and a boxing blue. One night returning late from the Commons he was mugged and the police arrived at the scene. The policeman commented that it was the first time in his career that he arrived to find the victim apologising to the assailant. He had laid out the unfortunate robber with one punch.

He was a man who gave up an earldom in order to support his prime minister John Major in the leadership election which he had initiated. Loyalty and integrity were his guiding lights reinforced with a core of steel. Duty was the only four letter word that ever crossed his lips. As a minister he was diligent and collegiate. On the eve of the 1997 election he invited the Scottish Office ministerial team to dinner at his home where his wonderful wife Susie and his children treated to us to jolly banquet. As we were leaving I pointed out a comet that was visible in the clear cold night sky to Susie. Perhaps that’s a sign she said. Well I said I hope not for the ancients thought them a portent of disaster. And so it proved to be.

James ever optimistic took our defeat square on and stood for the Scottish Parliament which we had opposed. He was elected to do what he enjoyed most which was serving his country and his constituents whether they voted for him or not. John Major to his enormous credit recommended James for a life peerage in his resignation honours list. As an active member of the House he was not just well respected but loved. His decision to retire when he realised his health was failing was greeted with great sadness. Today on all sides of the House we mourn the passing of a great parliamentarian who did his duty and did it very well. My thoughts are with Susie and his family of course. He will be much missed.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean is a Conservative peer

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