Lord Selkirk of Douglas, Edinburgh Tory MP who was likeable and courteous with a touch of steel – obituary

He was deft at piloting Bills, but less good at party knockabout, being accused of ‘floating like a bee and stinging like a butterfly‘

Lord Selkirk of Douglas, Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, inspecting the Guard of Honour from No 2 Company, 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, 2013
Lord Selkirk of Douglas, as Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, inspecting the Guard of Honour from No 2 Company, 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, 2013 Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Lord Selkirk of Douglas, who has died aged 81, was a socially liberal lawyer and aristocrat who was a hard-working Conservative MP for Edinburgh West for 23 years, a Scottish Office minister under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and finally a front-bench spokesman in the Scottish Parliament.

Blond, slight, likeable and courteous to a fault  – one often-told story had him jumping out of his government car to open the door for his female chauffeur – Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (younger brother of the 15th Duke of Hamilton) concealed, behind his patrician modesty, cleverness and a touch of steel. This he had developed as a competitive flyweight first at Eton and then at Oxford, where he earned a Blue and won a bout rated by The Daily Telegraph  as “university boxing at its best”.

He excelled at Westminster, piloting through Bills to reform some of the worst archaisms of Scots Law. His tenacity showed in his campaigning for Soviet Jewry, and his efforts to safeguard constituents’ defence jobs at Ferranti (later GEC Marconi).

Lord James – as he was known until made a life peer after losing his seat in 1997 – was less good at partisan knockabout. Instructed once to launch an attack on Labour, he succumbed to a fit of giggles, leaving the Labour MP Bob Hughes to accuse him of “floating like a bee and stinging like a butterfly”.

It was his misfortune to be a Conservative in Scotland as the party headed for near-oblivion, Mrs Thatcher’s policies not helping. When first elected in February 1974, he was one of 21 Scottish Tories, despite the party losing power; by 1992 there were just 11 – every one, including Lord James, losing their seats when Tony Blair swept to power.

He was fascinated from boyhood by the story of Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, who flew solo to Scotland in May 1941 in the hope of arranging peace talks with Lord James’s father the 14th Duke, then station commander at RAF Turnhouse (today Edinburgh Airport).

Born 14 months after Hess’s arrival and detention, he turned this fascination into serious research. The first fruit was Motive for a Mission: the story behind Hess’s flight to Britain, published in 1971; and after digging for two further decades he produced the authoritative The Truth about Rudolf Hess (1993).

As an MP, he pressed for Hess to be freed from Spandau prison, the last institution administered by the four post-war occupying powers – a situation the Russians were keen to maintain. In 1980, representing the all-party Freedom for Rudolf Hess Committee, he met Hess’s son.

The 14th Duke had been the first person to pilot an aircraft over Mount Everest, and Lord James chronicled this feat too in Roof of the World: man’s first flight over Everest (1993). He also published The Air Battle for Malta: The diaries of a Spitfire pilot (1981), and After You, Prime Minister (2009).

Lord James’s family loyalties were severely strained by the antics of his brother, who died in 2010, being succeeded as 16th Duke by his son. The Scotsman once observed: “Lord James has … escaped personal scandal and upheld the highest standards of behaviour, while the family name was dragged through the law courts when his brother – the Duke – and his mother fought over custody of the Duke’s children, with the dowager duchess alleging the Duke and his estranged wife both had serious drink problems.”

Lord James’s share of the Hamilton fortune – reinforced during the Industrial Revolution by revenues from coal mining – was slim. He held a 1 per cent interest in the family estates, which he made over to his children.

Campaigning: his tenacity at Westminster showed in his campaigning for Soviet Jewry, and his efforts to safeguard constituents’ defence jobs at Ferranti Credit: Dan Tuffs/Shutterstock

James Alexander Douglas-Hamilton was born at Dungavel House, Lanarkshire, on July 31 1942, the second son of the 14th Duke, and Elizabeth, daughter of the 15th Duke of Northumberland. Aged 10, a kilted Lord James was page to the Queen Mother at Elizabeth II’s Coronation.

In 1994, on the death of an uncle, he apparently inherited the Earldom of Selkirk. Although the succession was disputed by a cousin, Alastair Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James was, under the Peerage Act 1963, unable to vote in the Commons unless he disclaimed the title.

With Major’s parliamentary majority narrowing and a by-election in Edinburgh West a risky proposition, Lord James felt obliged to disclaim. Two years later, the Court of the Lord Lyon determined that he had been the true successor, not only to the earldom but to an estate worth £500,000. His cousin condemned the judgment as “a triumph for narrow law over reason and common sense”.

On Selkirk’s death, his eldest son, John Douglas-Hamilton, Master of Selkirk, born in 1978, succeeded to the title as the 12th Earl.

From Eton, Lord James went up to Balliol College, Oxford, becoming president of the university Conservative Association in 1963 and of the Union the following year. He next took an LLB in Scots Law at Edinburgh University, where he was President of Debates.

In parallel, he was commissioned into 6/7 Battalion the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), serving from 1972 to 1992 as Captain of the Cameronian Company, 2 Battalion Lowland Volunteers.

From 1968 to 1972 he practised as an advocate at the Scots Bar and acted as an interim procurator fiscal depute. He also had a few farming interests and became a “name” at Lloyd’s.

In 1972 Lord James was elected to Edinburgh Corporation; fellow councillors included Malcolm Rifkind, Robin Cook and George Foulkes. He fought his first seat (appropriately, Hamilton) in February 1974, finishing third behind Labour and the SNP.

That October, he was elected for suburban Edinburgh West with a majority of 5,202, replacing the retiring Anthony Stodart. The Labour government had been panicked by the upsurge of the SNP into offering a Scottish Assembly with devolved powers; Lord James favoured an assembly, but without a governing executive, and urged that abortion and family planning be not devolved.

Mrs Thatcher appointed him an Opposition whip in 1977, and taking power two years later promoted him to a Lord Commissioner of the Treasury, or senior Government whip. He stood down in 1981, from 1983 to 1987 serving as PPS to Scottish office ministers.

In December 1985 Lord James, with his colleague Michael Hirst, threatened a motion of no confidence in the Scottish party chairman Bill Walker after Walker used the votes of English Tories to oust Sir Hector Monro from the chair of the Scottish Select Committee.

Lord James scraped home at the 1983 election by 498 votes over a Liberal, but in 1987 increased the margin to 1,234. The pool of available talent was shrinking, and Mrs Thatcher made him a junior Scottish Office minister under Malcolm Rifkind, responsible for home affairs and the environment.

He announced a firearms amnesty in Scotland, and weeks after the Lockerbie disaster in December 1979 a £1 million rebuilding programme for the area flattened by the crashing aircraft. He also accused Labour MPs refusing to pay their poll tax of “sponging off their communities”.

Despite being in Rifkind’s moderate camp, he was not involved in the bloodletting of September 1990 which led to the Thatcherite Michael Forsyth being forced out as Scottish party chairman, only for Mrs Thatcher to put him in over Lord James as Minister of State.

Under Major, Lord James stayed in the ministerial team as Ian Lang succeeded Rifkind, taking responsibility for the Skye Bridge – “the longest of its kind in the Northern Hemisphere” – as it neared completion.

After the 1992 election when his majority shrank to 879, he was given responsibility for education and housing; his priority was to rebuild relations with the teaching unions, soured by Forsyth.

In 1995, with Forsyth now Secretary of State, Major promoted him to Minister of State, taking charge of the Scottish Home and Health Department. The following year he was made a privy counsellor, and a Scottish QC.

His electoral luck ran out in 1997 as every Scottish Tory lost their seat, Lord James going down by 7,253 votes to the veteran Liberal Donald Gorrie, who had first fought Edinburgh West in 1970.

Created a life peer as Lord Selkirk, he stood for the revived Scottish Parliament, and in the first Holyrood elections was elected a list MSP for the Lothians. One of only two Tories with Westminster experience, he became the Conservative group’s business manager and chief whip.

In 2000 he became Scottish Conservative home affairs spokesman, and after holding his seat in 2003 he served out his term as education spokesman, and deputy convenor of the Parliament’s education committee. He stood down at the 2007 elections.

Lord Selkirk served in 2012 as Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Sovereign’s personal representative.

He was at various times president of the International Rescue Corps, the Royal Commonwealth Society in Scotland, the Scottish council of the United Nations Association and the Scottish Amateur Boxing Association.

He was also honorary Air Commodore of No 2 (City of Edinburgh) Maritime HQ Unit, and 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron RAAF – which his uncle Lord David had commanded during the battle for Malta – and a member of the Royal Company of Archers, the Queen’s Body Guard for Scotland.

James Douglas-Hamilton married in 1974 Priscilla Buchan, daughter of the 2nd Baron Tweedsmuir and granddaughter of the novelist John Buchan. They had four sons, including twins.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas, born July 31 1942, died November 28 2023