Obituary: Sir Albert McQuarrie
BACK IN 2014, during the European elections I found myself in Peterhead. It was March, and a light wind was howling off the sea. As I approached the pier-head, Sir Albert McQuarrie was waiting to greet me. He was 96. Although Sir Albert had not held the seat of Banff & Buchan since 1987, not an election went by without the Buchan Bulldog hitting the campaign trail in ‘his’ constituency, laterally in a motorised scooter festooned with Union flags.
That morning in 2014, despite the wind whipping up the sea around us, and the temperature in single figures, Sir Albert unwrapped his various layers and readied himself for a campaign photograph. Just as the picture adjacent was about to be taken, he called to his wife, ‘Rhoda, come and take these walking sticks. We don’t need them in the photo.’
Albert McQuarrie loved Buchan. Despite hailing from the Clyde, he made it his home. He wrested the seat of East Aberdeenshire from the SNP in 1979 by 558 votes, and doubled his majority in the successor seat of Banff & Buchan in 1983. As he declared in his maiden speech in the House of Commons,
‘I represent that fine constituency of Aberdeenshire East, which is a long way from this chamber. But, thanks to modern travel, I am able to commute to this lovely city of London to the Palace of Westminster to take part in the proceedings of the House, and then return to the green fields of the beautiful agricultural areas in my constituency and the rolling waves of the North Sea, where the oil and gas come ashore to aid this country’s economy.’
Approaching 70 when he next fought the 1987 election he was defeated by Alex Salmond, the future leader of the SNP, much to McQuarrie’s vocal annoyance. He described the SNP MPs who arrived at Westminster as, ‘a bunch of hooligans.’ McQuarrie had one last election in him though and contested the Euro-seat of the Highlands and Islands in the 1989, then firmly in the grip of nationalist Winnie Ewing. It was not to be. After his defeat he returned once more to his Buchan, never more to roam. McQuarrie, by now Sir Albert, never gave up the fight though, and lent his redoubtable support to any and all Conservative candidates who would try and bring ‘his’ constituency back into the Tory fold.
Born in Gourock in 1918, Sir Albert was educated at Greenock High School and studied engineering at the Royal College of Science and Technology (Strathclyde University). During the war, McQuarrie served with the Royal Engineers, ever after proudly describing himself as a sapper.
With the war’s end, Albert formed A McQuarrie (Great Britain) Ltd. In true McQuarrie style, he was chairman, managing director and majority shareholder - as well its chief publicist. The success of the company owes much to the great storm of January ’68, which lashed the west of Scotland. As McQuarrie describes it, he was standing at his sitting room window when he saw dustbins blowing down the street. Turning to his wife, he said: ‘There’s money in this for somebody.’ He was right, That somebody was him.
A chance encounter with a Council official the next day alerted McQuarrie to the pressing need for slaters to re-roof the tenements of greater Glasgow. Heading straight to the nearest labour exchange he recruited every man able to climb a ladder. Within the month he had over a thousand men working for him. Ever after Sir Albert would refer proprietarily to “my storm” and the boon it represented for A McQuarrie (Great Britain) Ltd.
McQuarrie came relatively late to Westminster, securing his seat aged 61. However, his vim and vigour were never in doubt. A supporter of Margaret Thatcher, McQuarrie was never a Thatcherite, he was too much his own man for that. He would offer strong and considered support as long as he agreed with the PM on an issue, or perhaps more accurately if the PM agreed with him. Where she didn’t, he was a tenacious opponent. He led the rebellion against the 20p increase in petrol duty in the 1981 Budget. He threatened resignation as secretary of Scotland’s Unionist MPs whenever the Ravenscraig steelworks were threatened with closure.
At Westminster McQuarrie pursued two issues doggedly: Gibraltar and fishing.
A posting to Gibraltar during the war established a life-long love of the Rock. His first wife, Roseleen, was a Gibraltarian, and he would spend several happy years on there. In the House of Commons, Gibraltar had no greater advocate. He was chairman of the British/Gibraltar All-Party Group, campaigned successfully to secure British citizenship for Gibraltarians, and vehemently opposed the closure of Gibraltar’s dockyard in 1983. It came as no surprise when was awarded the Freedom of the Rock that year.
McQuarrie was equally passionate about the Scottish fishing industry, and it was his staunch advocacy of fishing interests that earned him the sobriquet of the Buchan Bulldog, a title he reveled in for the rest of his days. In 1986, he secured passage of the Safety at Sea Act, which required all fishing vessels to carry emergency radio beacons, automatic-release life rafts and lifejackets. Since its introduction, his pioneering law has saved many lives.
Sir Albert was a fierce supporter of the Union. He thought the SNP were dangerous and made no secret of the fact. At age of 96, he returned once more to the fray, as part of the Better Together campaign, explaining, ‘I am a Unionist first, and then a Conservative.’ Sir Albert would power his union flag-draped mobility scooter up and down the streets of Mintlaw, extolling the virtues of the union and the iniquities of the nationalists.
Sir Albert was confident that Banff and Buchan would be blue again, and was determined to see the day. In the 2010 election, with trawlerman Jimmy Buchan the Conservative candidate, the constituency saw the single biggest rise in vote share of any constituency in the land. Sadly, with the passing of Sir Albert, the current Holyrood candidate Peter Chapman has lost one of his most powerful supporters.
When I heard of Sir Albert’s passing I was reminded of the Fishermen’s Prayer, which has never seemed more apt, nor the outcome more certain.
I pray that I may live to fish
Until my dying day.
And when it comes to my last cast,
I then most humbly pray:
When in the Lord's great landing net
And peacefully asleep
That in His mercy I be judged
Big enough to keep.
This article appeared in Think Scotland on Sunday 17, January, 2016