Born in Belshill, Lanarkshire, the son of a headmaster and an extremely bright, consistent soft left-winger who helped to lead resistance to the final embrace of full-blooded multilateralism in Labour's policy review. He rebelled on defence as recently as 1989.
He undoubtedly made a big success of the health portfolio in Opposition (he is married to a hospital consultant) and is arguably Labour's most capable parliamentarian. Some would even say he claims the prize for the most effective despatch box performer in any party.
He is the most senior Labour figure to give unequivocal support to electoral reform, but was anti-devolutionist (like Neil Kinnock) in the 1970s. He became a strong advocate of proportional representation well before it became fashionable, arguing that if Margaret Thatcher was an example of strong government achieved by first past the post, then what was so great about strong government?
It was said in the past that he believed he should be a candidate for the party leadership, but that he would not be because he is not telegenic enough.
Friends say that he is one of Labour's key assets, because of his abilities. An assiduous thinker, reader and exploiter of the faintest sign of weakness, his forte is waging carefully executed campaigns on matters of principle. The bitter parliamentary contest with Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, over pit closures ranks as one of his most effective.
Enemies say he is too much a wheeler-dealer. Certainly in the past he has been a kingmaker - playing a key role in the campaigns of Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and John Smith.