Donald Dewar: Obituary

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Of few people can it be realistically said, "Without him (or her), major constitutional events would have turned out differently." Like the Parliament on the Mound or loathe it, it would not have been born, let alone up and functioning, had it not been for Donald Dewar and his ceaseless activity in the cause of Scottish devolution over a period of 30 years.

Of few people can it be realistically said, "Without him (or her), major constitutional events would have turned out differently." Like the Parliament on the Mound or loathe it, it would not have been born, let alone up and functioning, had it not been for Donald Dewar and his ceaseless activity in the cause of Scottish devolution over a period of 30 years.

Dewar had become messianic about a Scottish assembly. The idea that he was some sort of Kerensky is misconceived - he was more like Lenin; a true believer. A scourge of the Scottish National Party - the Labour candidate who stemmed their advance at the Thermopylae that was the Garscadden by-election in 1978 - he became indistinguishable from a nationalist.

It was not always so. As one of his few remaining parliamentary colleagues in the period 1966-70 when he was the MP for South Aberdeen, elected at the age of 29, and as one who had known him since he was a 19-year-old youth in the Glasgow University Labour Club, I do not recollect any utterances about self-government for Scotland before 1970.

His interests were directed at making socialism relevant to the changing world and managing the British economy. In 1967, a year after he entered the House of Commons, Anthony Crosland, author of a seminal book, The Future of Socialism (1956), plucked him out of a large Labour intake to be his Parliamentary Private Secretary. Dewar did not establish a rapport with Crosland. But until 1970 and the unexpected defeat of the Wilson government and his own loss of South Aberdeen, I'll swear he saw his life as a front-bench Westminster politician.

Then something happened that was to shape Dewar's life - and, almost as a side-effect, British constitutional history. His wife, Alison, told him that she did not wish to come back to Scotland with him, but would stay in London and live with one of his best friends, his fellow Glasgow student Derry Irvine, the future Lord Chancellor.

It is not hard to imagine the impact of this bombshell, let alone on someone with such a vulnerable childhood. His friends were appalled at the cruelty. From that moment, I believe Dewar harboured a deep resentment against London. Here he was, having to start life again as a solicitor in Scotland, working mostly for a local authority, seeing his son and daughter, to whom he was devoted, being brought up in the Irvine household. His attitude was very human. And if I mention these personal and delicate matters it is because they are central to Dewar's political credo of removing power from London to Scotland.

Donald Dewar was born the only child of Dr Alasdair Dewar, a distinguished consultant dermatologist, and Mary née Bennett. Dewar pÿre was confined to a sanatorium with tuberculosis for long spells. His wife sustained a major brain operation when Donald was very young. He was sent to an institution which called itself a prep school in Hawick: this de facto meant that he was put into care.

His honourable passion for all his political life, apart from Scottish devolution, was the care of vulnerable children; he would have made an innovative and superb Secretary of State for the Social Services, a job that he was to shadow years later, from 1992 to 1995.

At the age of nine, Dewar went to Moss Park Primary School, where he was very different from the other children and had a pretty wretched existence, sticking out, as he told me, like a sore thumb. His parents were able to send him to the fee-paying Glasgow Academy, which had a remarkable and caring headmaster in Dr David Lees, a scholar whom I knew well. He talked to me about Dewar in the early 1960s when he came on the Ship School Dunera. Because I was then a Labour candidate, he was very forthcoming about this student who had been such a problem at school but whose talent was flowering in the Glasgow University Law School and Labour Club. Profoundly fortunate are lonely children who encounter caring and effective headmasters.

Missing National Service by a whisker, at the age of 25 Dewar was adopted for the seemingly unwinnable seat of South Aberdeen. In 1964 he lost to Lady Tweedsmuir by 25,824 to 21,926. However, 18 months later at the 1966 election he turned the tables and defeated Priscilla Tweedsmuir by 1,799 votes - since she was a highly respected Foreign Office minister, with all the John Buchan connections, this was considered a feat. His maiden speech, on 4 May 1966, encapsulated his style:

It is with some trepidation that I find myself on my feet at this early stage. Many of my honourable friends counselled a longer wait, but a maiden speech is an ordeal which does not improve with contemplation and I decided to take my courage in both hands and rely on the traditional tolerance of the committee.

I was there and remember how felicitously tactful he was to older people, now veterans of the Commons Finance Bill procedures which were then taken on the floor of the House.

I am the first member of the Labour Party to be returned for South Aberdeen, and I suppose it is fair to ask why the people in that area have decided to turn their backs on a well-entrenched Conservative tradition which has been energetically represented for 20 years by my distinguished and in some ways rather formidable predecessor, Lady Tweedsmuir.

It was always to be one of Dewar's strengths for the next third of a century to be charming to his opponents. That is part of the reason why he got away with so much in terms of policy pronouncements, when more abrasive politicians would have got into serious trouble. It was his ability to draw naïve birds off the trees that eased through devolution in a way that George Robertson or any other Secretary of State for Scotland could not possibly have done.

As member for pre-oil Aberdeen he championed the tourist industry:

In a city like Aberdeen there will be a temptation to pass on to the customer the increases due to taxation. If this is done the tourist trade, which basically depends on internal tourism with people coming from other parts of Britain to Aberdeen, will become even more vulnerable to the ever-increasing plethora of cheap continental holidays.

Dewar was intelligent in foreseeing problems on the horizon.

In 1970 he was unlucky after working so hard to be defeated by Iain Sproat, 23,843 to 22,754 with the Liberals gaining 3,135 and the SNP 2,777, a majority of 1,089. However he had left his mark. In Parliament he had become a central figure in the Manifesto-Solidarity Group of the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party organised by his friend Dr Dickson Mabon, MP for Greenock and Port Glasgow.

Having been chairman of the Glasgow Labour Club in succession to John Smith, and having campaigned for Smith at the famous East Fife by-election of 1961, it was thought that he would return quickly to Parliament. This was not to be. In June 1971 at a selection conference he was the front runner for the West Stirlingshire parliamentary seat when Willie Baxter announced that he was giving up. However in circumstances that are now blurred Dewar thought that he was cheated of this nomination by the secretary of the local party, Dennis Canavan - to be the source of much trouble in subsequent decades.

During a seven-year wait in which Dewar became reconciled to the reality that he would never again return to Westminster, he became a reporter on children's panels and worked for the Lanarkshire local authority.

Chance is everything in politics. Dewar's friend the veteran Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers MP Willie Small died unexpectedly. In March 1978 the Labour government was at the nadir of its fortunes and the seat of Glasgow, Garscadden looked as if it would be taken by a strong SNP candidate, Keith Bovey, who had got 12,100 votes and second place in October 1974. But a memorable candidate's performance by Dewar, who I remember was very good at expressing gratitude to his many Labour workers and increasing our morale, saved the day. He won by 16,507 votes to the SNP's 11,955 and the Conservative (later SNP) candidate Ian Lawson, 6,746.

On 27 April, again on the Finance Bill, the measure on which he had made his maiden speech 12 long years before, Dewar began:

I have had a great deal of gratuitous advice on how I should start this contribution today. The most popular formula has been: "As I was saying when I was rudely interrupted by the events of the 18th June 1970". I rejected that because I cannot remember what I was saying at the time of the 1970 election.

It was an excellent example of his self-deprecating humour.

Glasgow, not Aberdeen, it became clear, was Dewar's natural habitat:

It is a constituency in the very heartland of western Scotland. To be involved in Garscadden is to be involved in the whole area. If one lives in Drumchapel, Knightswood, Blairdardie, Yoker or Temple, if one works in the Yarrow shipyards, the Goodyear tyre factory, at Albion Trucks or any other factory in the travel-to-work area of my constituency, if one's problems are education, housing or employment, one is involved in the essential Scottish controversy. Indeed, in a real sense the issue of the by-election was the whole future of our relations with our neighbours, and our perception of our self.

To my personal knowledge huge numbers of the deprived people of his Clydeside constituency went to Dewar and got honest and kind advice, and any action that an MP could take formally or informally. Whatever reservations I had about Dewar as a macro politician, I could only admire any man who as First Minister in Scotland can come back from an official visit as he did in April this year from Japan, and attend his Anniesland surgery (Glasgow, Garscadden disappeared under 1995 boundary changes but was largely contained in his new constituency of Glasgow, Anniesland) within a few hours of jet-lagged arrival. One cannot help but think that some of his health problems have been as the result of devotion far above the call of duty to his constituents.

At the opening of the Scottish Parliament on 13 May 1999 Dewar said:

All my political life, I have worked with others to achieve this Parliament. Many of my allies and many colleagues in that cause are here today.

I am proud of what we have done and I am proud of what Scotland has done. Scotland's Parliament is no longer a political pamphlet, a campaign trail or a waving flag, it is here; it is real. We are indeed a country with a past. The past has shaped us but our task now is to shape the future. I hope that we can all co-operate to do that. We need a government that can deliver the priorities and the hopes of the people, which were defined by the votes cast last week in the elections to this Parliament and by the popular will that carried the referendum - the popular will on which the authority of this Parliament itself is built.

Each of us is privileged to serve as a member of this Parliament. I would very much like to serve Scotland as First Minister.

He had got his way.

Many people from the time that he was a student have described Donald Dewar as "such a nice man". Nice, he wasn't. (And his shade would not mind my saying so.) What he was was a driven, scheming, interesting, unusual politician who has left an indelible mark on British history - for better or for worse we will not know until the end of the 21st century.


Donald Campbell Dewar, solicitor and politician: born Glasgow 21 August 1937; MP (Labour) for South Aberdeen 1966-70, for Glasgow, Garscadden 1978-97, for Glasgow, Anniesland 1997-2000; PPS to the President of the Board of Trade 1967; partner, Ross Harper and Murphy 1975-97; Chairman, Select Committee on Scottish Affairs 1979-81; Secretary of State for Scotland 1997-99; First Minister, Scottish Parliament 1999-2000; married 1964 Alison McNair (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1973); died Edinburgh 11 October 2000.