Intellectually brilliant. Impeccably loyal. Shy, but exceptionally funny

Tim Luckhurst recalls his friend and colleague of 15 years
Click to follow
Indy Politics

It is a measure of Donald Dewar's huge decency that he never ceased to treat me as a friend, despite my often bitter criticisms of his Scottish Executive. He returned my phone calls even when he was recovering from heart surgery.

It is a measure of Donald Dewar's huge decency that he never ceased to treat me as a friend, despite my often bitter criticisms of his Scottish Executive. He returned my phone calls even when he was recovering from heart surgery.

Just a few short weeks ago we met at my home. He hinted then that he was beginning to believe he would have been happier if he had delivered devolution but left others to make it work. Those who conceive great ideas are not always best suited to managing them. Mr Dewar's great tragedy was that he never really enjoyed the position he had laboured so long and so brilliantly to create.

I knew Donald Dewar was in a class of his own before I met him. When I learnt that Labour's Scotland spokesman needed an assistant I concentrated on finding out everything I could about him.

The verdict was unanimous. From the Campaign Group to the Conservatives' centre-right, nobody at Westminster had a bad word to say. Intellectually brilliant. A pillar of integrity. A superb Commons orator. Great company. Impeccably loyal. Shy, but exceptionally funny. Always hungry. Frighteningly well-briefed and astonishingly diligent. Every Labour leader from Jim Callaghan to Tony Blair knew he could rely on Mr Dewar.

And it was true. Shadowing the Scottish Office was a mammoth task. Mr Dewar had to cover the work of five ministries. He did it, paying much attention to detail. We evolved a way of working. I would provide him with facts, documents and suggested lines of argument. Then he would slump in his armchair, take a fountain pen from his pocket and write in long-hand. His speech on the second reading of the Scottish poll tax Bill was a tour de force. He alerted the Labour Party to a campaign theme it had dismissed as being of purely Scottish interest.

Mr Dewar was also formidable in committee. He used to speculate about the fun he could have as a dissident backbencher. He liked nothing more than harrying a minister on an acute point of financial detail or law reform.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Lord Lang of Monkton and Sir Michael Forsyth had civil service teams. Mr Dewar operated alone. He was always well-informed, razor-sharp and devastatingly funny. He loved to plant ambushes in his speeches. He would invent obscure points of precedent and was greatly amused to hear them repeated weeks later as matters of established fact.

I remember the Pied Wagtail Preservation Order of 1968. It didn't exist. Mr Dewar never actually said that it did, he just harried a minister to the point of bumbling surrender by speculating as to whether it established a procedural precedent that might be emulated.

He also did it over the poll tax, trawling the world for comparisons, finding an example of spectacular failure in one Canadian province and then inventing an entirely fictitious African experiment too. Again, he simply suggested the African example might be worthy of study. Months later, colleagues were citing it as proof that the poll tax would be a shambolic failure. Mr Dewar found it highly entertaining.

But devolution was his great cause. I was never surprised by his personal involvement in the drafting of the Scotland Act or by the relentless energy he employed to force it through. He wrote its predecessor, Labour's 1987 devolution Bill, in a few days. One Commons clerk described it as the best piece of legislative drafting he had ever seen.

If this makes the man sound dull, he was not. He loved football. Literature, history and the visual arts delighted him.

Those who got close to Mr Dewar found an inner core of melancholy which made him vulnerable and a deserving target for affection. He was horribly hurt by the split with his wife, Alison, and her remarriage. His sensitivity on that point was such that, for the first year I worked for him, I assumed Alison was dead.

The vulnerability became more apparent when he quit the Cabinet. He did not realise how much he had depended on the friendship of ministerial colleagues in London. Restricted to Edinburgh, he found himself surrounded by political pygmies. But Mr Dewar's greatest sadness must have been that the big idea he conceived and delivered attracted colleagues who were light years away from being his equals. He was poorly equipped for the spite, pettiness and factionalism of the Scottish Labour Party.

Mr Dewar derided the suggestion, but he would have made a better Prime Minister than he did a First Minister. In Scotland, he was like Pele reduced to playing for Hamilton Academicals.

I last met him a few weeks ago. He walked to my home as part of a new exercise regime. He said he was tired, and he looked it. He was frustrated that he did not feel fully better, but he seemed calmer than I had seen him in years. I think it was because he had decided to quit politics. He spoke of the delight of seeing family during his recuperation and was obviously looking forward to spending more time relaxing.

He also came close to admitting he had been too complacent, too establishment- minded about the nature of Scottish society. And that he might have been better to let someone else operate the devolved government he had done so much to create.

He deserves warm gratitude. Mr Dewar made home-rule a reality - and that was a vast accomplishment. Let the pygmies fight for his job. Only one of them, Wendy Alexander, the communities minister and Mr Dewar's former special adviser, would be a worthy successor.

* Tim Luckhurst is a former editor of 'The Scotsman'. Between 1985 and 1988 he was press officer and research assistant to Donald Dewar.