Notebook: The solid foundations of Donald Dewar

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THE ONE quality of Scotland's new First Minister that everybody agrees on - probably even Alex Salmond - is his decency. "Donald Dewar?" people say. "A very decent man." Some go further. He is too decent.

According to Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's former spinner, he was so upright that he refused to listen to various stunts and wheezes - acts of mendacity, one imagines - which were proposed to him in government by, among others, Charlie Whelan.

Doling out advice in The Guardian this week, where he has strangely taken up residence as an expert on Scottish political affairs, Whelan said that Dewar would have to mend his ways if he wanted to prosper as Scotland's first parliamentary leader in 300 years; he would need to put decency on the back-burner, politics being a dirty business and so on.

This was presumptuous. Dewar was winning elections in Scotland when Whelan was being tucked into bed with The Tale of Peter Rabbit several hundred miles to the south. But however good or bad the advice, I don't think Dewar is capable of taking it. Every time I see him on television I begin by hoping that some expensive course in media manners will have smoothed his jumpy utterance, his stare of a distressed chemistry teacher. But he is always the same - "um-um-um, if I may say so, um-um, the question is ridiculous" - and by the end of the programme I'm glad of it. You sort of know where you are with Dewar, even if it's back in the chemistry class, and his inability to change makes him interesting and exceptional in media- driven politics.

If we believe the optimism about the Scottish Parliament's potential for inclusive, consensual government, then this trueness of character might serve him very well.

I can also attest to his decency, though maybe not quite in the way the Concise Oxford defines the word: "correct and tasteful standards of behaviour as generally accepted". That implies politeness. Dewar is too direct and impatient to be polite. I don't know him well, but we have friends in common, and over the past 30-odd years I have met him occasionally.

The first time was on an excursion down the Clyde which I played some part in organising. We arranged to gather on a paddle-steamer at Gourock, from where we would sail around the Firth. It was a typical grey Clyde day, but there was a bar on board (in those days, a small utilitarian place secreted below the water-line) and the general idea was fresh air and fun.

Dewar paced the deck as the piers of seaside towns came and went. So this is Dunoon! Very good. Where next? So this is Rothesay! Yes, um-um, recognisably so. And now?("The Kyles of Bute, Donald.") Ah, the Kyles of Bute. No doubt very pretty when the sun shines, um-um, but rather pointless in the drizzle I should say, wouldn't you?

And so it went on, via Brodick and Millport and Wemyss Bay to Gourock again.

The excursion - more than that, the mountains and the sea - seemed to have failed an examination. I don't remember seeing him in the bar; being in a bar, as Donald would say, was not the point. I have never seen a man so glad to leave a boat and its hours of enforced idleness behind and press on urgently with the next thing.

For "decent" then, read honest and sincere to degrees unusual in a politician. These aren't particularly Scottish characteristics, though Scottish self- advertisement often claims them, but if there is an explanation beyond the genetic then it has to come from Dewar's background.

One consequence of nationalism is to give the impression of Scotland as a mono-culture - some unstable (to me, unattractive) compound of Braveheart and Trainspotting - but it's no more so than England or anywhere else. Dewar grew up in the most solid reaches of the Glasgow middle class at a time (he was born in 1937) when it had still had a distinct identity. To quote one of the best books ever written on the city, a typical man of this class was "independent, cautious, shrewd and `decent'". If you went to his office "you will find that he meets you with a simple and quiet directness which brings you quickly to the point, and when that is reached, bows you quickly to the door".

In England, a man of the same class might be "vulgar and strident". Scottish reserve saved the Glasgow man here, though he could "argue with point and force and has, within limits, an open mind".

What he lacked was imagination (enter Charlie Whelan with supplies). Typically, the Glasgow man wanted his son to be a doctor.

That was written at the beginning of the century (by three Glasgow writers trading under one name, James Hamilton Muir) but a lot of it still held good in the Forties.

Dewar's father was a doctor, a prosperous one. The family lived in Glasgow's small equivalent of Harley Street, in a handsome stone terrace next to Kelvingrove Park. Every day their only child, Donald Campbell, would walk across the park to school - Glasgow Academy, fee-paying, the Alma Mater of Lord Reith. The University of Glasgow was reached by the same walk across the same park. There Dewar met John Smith, spoke in debates, became president of the students' union, joined the Labour Party, and met a doctor's daughter, Alison McNair. They married, set up home close to the park and the university, had two children. Dewar, meanwhile, practised as a Glasgow solicitor.

Not until he was nearly 30, when in 1966 the electors of Aberdeen South sent him to Westminster, did Dewar really break out of the respectable, tight little society of west Glasgow, which so informed him with its old patterns of conduct and belief.

In any case, the Sixties didn't happen in Glasgow until the Seventies. There was never a danger of social rebellion: Donald with a joint, Donald in a rock band, Donald with flowers in his hair, all wonderful but impossible pictures.

He wasn't, however, bland. At university, quite a few people couldn't stick him. He could be acerbic and uncharitable in his machine-gun delivery. His low boredom threshold was notorious. And there was a heedlessness in his private behaviour which could be unsettling to others. "Nosiness" isn't quite the word - just a kind of abstracted curiosity. Other people's parcels, other people's books, other people's cupboards - they were all there to be opened, inspected, judged. He would tear a parcel from someone's hand, find a book, and say: "What's in here, um-um? Oh this! What a silly book to buy!"

Things went wrong for Dewar in the early Seventies. He lost his seat and then his wife, the first to a Tory in the days when Scotland still elected them and the second to Derry Irvine, a friend from his university days and now Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor (a useful guide to the difference between the two men can be found in the pages of Who's Who; Dewar's entry is very spare - no interests, no clubs - but rashly gives his home address; from Irvine's you gather a richer picture - paintings, theatre, the Garrick - but one which stays outside his home/s).

Dewar has never remarried, but he came back to Westminster in a by-election in 1978, only to spend the next 17 years in opposition. If grief and struggle improve and strengthen people - let's hope they do - then Dewar must be among the strongest members of the Cabinet.

At 61, he is certainly the oldest. If he cared to, he could remember the Clydeside blitz, ration cards, tram cars, Dickie Valentine and Clement Attlee. I mention it only because in the context of Blair's party, this fact is a shock. As a party, it doesn't believe in memory. Many of its members would struggle to remember the Bay City Rollers.

Today he lives in the nicest street in Kelvinside, not far from where he was born. He is a bibliophile. Books, many of which he has actually read, fill most corners of the house. His tastes aren't modish (it became a newspaper story in Scotland when he revealed that he hadn't read Trainspotting or seen the film and didn't intend to do either), but they are sincere and wide-ranging. Recently, when he was considering a move, an estate agent warned him that the great difficulty would be in finding another house that would take the weight of so much cloth, calf and paper.

A friend who has known him for 40 years says of him: "He is very straight, quite damagingly honest and unshakeably loyal." That's the kind of thing friends say, of course, but as this friend of Dewar's has been a friend of mine for almost the same length of time, I've more than the usual journalistic reasons to quote and trust him.

The election results in Scotland were the crowning point of Donald Dewar's career. He has got what he wanted and what - which isn't always the case - he deserves.

From his reading of Scottish history, if not of Charlie Whelan, he will be well aware of the need to avoid the reputation of James VI and I, the first monarch to combine the crowns of Scotland and England, and the wisest fool in Christendom.