Sir Albert McQuarrie: North east MP known as the ‘Buchan Bulldog’

Sir Albert McQuarrie earned the nickname ‘Buchan Bulldog’ for his tenacity, much of which was expended on behalf of the north east and in particular the fishing industry.

A Conservative MP at the height of the Thatcher revolution, Sir Albert represented a bygone era of working-class Scottish Toryism and unabashed British patriotism.

He was 98 at the time of his death.

He entered Parliament in 1979 as MP for East Aberdeenshire, one of 22 Tories from north of the border. By the 1987 election, when he lost his redrawn seat of Banff and Buchan to a young Alex Salmond, the Scottish Tory contingent had fallen to ten. Within a decade, it would be wiped out altogether.

Across his two terms in office, he built a reputation as a dedicated local MP and his hard work and good humour brought affection from his constituents and respect from his adversaries.

Born in Greenock on New Year’s Day 1918, Sir Albert was educated at Highlanders Academy and later Greenock High School. He studied engineering at Strathclyde University, in the days when it was still the Royal College of Science and Technology, and went on to serve in the Royal Engineers during World War II.

After the war, he embarked on a plumbing apprenticeship before setting up his own business. His early foray into politics saw him serve on the now defunct Greenock Town Council from 1949 to 1955 but bids to unseat Labour in Kilmarnock in 1966 and in Caithness and Sutherland in the October 1974 election proved fruitless.

Five years later, the winter of discontent had crippled James Callaghan’s Labour government and a swing to the Conservatives saw Sir Albert take East Aberdeenshire from the SNP’s Douglas Henderson. (Ironically Henderson had masterminded the Nationalists’ support of Margaret Thatcher’s motion of no confidence in Labour. Nowhere was Callaghan’s quip about turkeys voting for an early Christmas more apt.)

His time in the Commons was spent campaigning on behalf of the north east fishing industry, culminating in the Safety at Sea Act 1986, which required fishing vessels to carry emergency radio beacons, automatic-release life rafts, and lifejackets for every crew member.

He was a passionate campaigner on Gibraltar. He spent six and a half years living on the Rock and spoke out for the right of the islanders to remain British, ensuring the British Nationality Act 1981 included a provision to allow Gibraltarians to become citizens. In 1982, he was rewarded with the Freedom of the City of Gibraltar.

That attachment to some far-flung British rocks symbolised a Unionism that transcended distance as it celebrated difference, finding compliment rather than contrast in national and regional peculiarities.

As he evocatively sketched it in his maiden speech to the 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.

Ideologically he was eclectic, never quite fitting in with either of the two dominant factions in the Tory Party of the time: the Essex Man ‘dries’, for whom monetarism was a creed and Mrs Thatcher their free-market high priestess, or the patrician ‘wets’, who counselled consensus over confrontation and a return to the benign paternalism of the Macmillan years.

In policy terms, Sir Albert eschewed straightforward categorisation. He called for the reintroduction of the death penalty and was an outspoken opponent of abortion. However, he also supported helping young mothers into the workplace, equality in benefit payments and pressed for an end to taxation on widows’ pensions. A devout Catholic, he was a fierce critic of republican violence and urged tougher punishments for IRA terrorists.

Where he stood out was in rhetoric, some of it pungent. “[A]bortion clinics are nothing more than the gas chambers of the Hitler era,” he told the Commons during a debate on women’s rights while another contribution saw him remark coolly that the Long Kesh hunger strikers had “inflicted capital punishment upon themselves without the necessity of legislation”.

It was this sharp tongue, and its deployment on behalf of causes dear to his heart, that attracted the “Buchan Bulldog” sobriquet. Former Scottish Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind once remarked that his colleague “was as happy with the title as Margaret Thatcher was with being known as the Iron Lady”.

Sir Albert remained active in Scottish Conservative politics in his later years, endorsing Ruth Davidson for the party leadership in 2011. Taking aim at her rival Murdo Fraser’s proposal to create a new centre-right party, the grandee huffed: “We want no new name. We are the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and that is what we should remain.” He spent his retirement in Aberdeenshire and his recreations were listed in Debrett’s as “golf, bridge, music, soccer, swimming, horticulture”.

Sir Albert McQuarrie, who was knighted in 1987, was born on January 1, 1918 and died on January 13, 2016. His autobiography, A Lifetime of Memories, was published by the Memoir Club in 2014.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Port of Gibraltar by Creative Commons 4.0.

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