A serious loss in political, not just personal, terms

'Who will now take up the fight to ensure that the still youthful Parliament earns the respect of Scotland?'
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The Independent Online

Oddly, even the most fulsome of the tributes paid to Donald Dewar yesterday may be underestimating the gap he leaves in British politics. For his death yesterday at the age of only 63 is a tragedy not only for his family, for his very large body of admirers, but for the new Scottish polity which he, more than any other single figure, brought into being.

Oddly, even the most fulsome of the tributes paid to Donald Dewar yesterday may be underestimating the gap he leaves in British politics. For his death yesterday at the age of only 63 is a tragedy not only for his family, for his very large body of admirers, but for the new Scottish polity which he, more than any other single figure, brought into being.

He will be missed, of course, for all sorts of less grand reasons: among others, his wit, his self-effacing charm, his intellectual curiosity, his unfashionable lack of showmanship. Like his closest political friend, the late John Smith, he was one of an extraordinary generation of Glasgow University-educated, conviction Labour politicians with a great deal of interest in intellectual argument and very little in the slicker modern techniques of presentation.

In his elegant little introduction to a just published collection of Smith's speeches, Dewar wrote an epitaph for Smith which could so easily serve as his own. "For some [politicians] a dramatic setting, the flashing phrase, the right gestures liberated by autocue shape the end product. [He] was not of that school. He actively distrusted and disapproved of anything that he saw as 'flash'. For him a speech was an exercise in persuasion and logic ... His Labour Party was, above all, committed to redressing the balance in favour of those who were the victims of circumstance - the depressing, damaging, self-fulfilling expectation of failure."

With some relish, he also recounted how Smith, "at heart a Presbyterian from the west of Scotland" had once horrified his staff by telling a radio audience in England that "we are not put on this earth to enjoy ourselves". This too has a resonance in Dewar's own character. I was once part of a group which, improbably, accompanied to him to that noisy and distinctly mediapolitan club, Soho House in London. Dewar was fastidious enough to be pretty appalled by the ambience, but, typically, he also saw the joke. He fully enjoyed the irony of his inappropriate presence in this fleshpot, staring with gloomy wistfulness out of the window as if he had been taken hostage by an alien force.

All this we know. But what makes his loss so serious, in political rather than merely personal terms, concerns the other characteristic he shared with Smith: an unshakeable commitment to the goal of a Scottish Parliament. In that same introduction Dewar remarked - correctly - of Scottish devolution that "the template for radical democratic reform delivered by Tony Blair was cut in John Smith's time." Characteristically he didn't mention that it was he who did the delivering on Tony Blair's behalf, by ushering in the Scotland Bill within a year of the new Labour government taking office. What remains to be seen is whether the Scottish Parliament is yet robust enough to realise all the dreams he had for it without another figure of his stature to make sure it does.

For who will now take up the fight to ensure that the still youthful parliament "earns the respect of the country", as Dewar promised it would during the Second Reading debate on the Scotland Bill in January 1998?

Given that Dewar, patently decent and honest a man as he was, had presided over some of the difficulties facing the fledgling parliament, such as the authoritarian regime for selecting MPs which deprived MPs like Denis Canavan of Labour seats in the Scottish Parliament, the problems inflicted by seeking to abolish Section 28 before the rest of the United Kingdom, the press obsession with the trivia and minutiae of the parliament's and the executive's working, and, on occasions, the somewhat bunkerish approach in the face of criticism by the First Minister's office, Dewar himself could not escape some of the blame for the fact that it has not yet irreversibly earned such respect.

But that's not quite the point. For Dewar's contribution to the new Scottish politics remains unique, and it is all too possiblethat it will prove literally irreplaceable. It is not only that he was a genuinely big figure, standing head and shoulders above his fellow MSPs. It was also that of all the Scottish Labour enthusiasts for Scottish home rule who are front rank British politicians, he was the only one consistent enough to practise what he preached by rebasing his career in Edinburgh. Scottish politicians, thanks to their outstanding merit, contribute disproportionately to the governance of the United Kingdom. The great offices of Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Lord Chancellor, not to mention that of Social Security Secretary and Minister of Transport, are all held by Scots.

This isn't at all to suggest that those Scots should have acted as Dewar did. Indeed it would be surely be crazy to do so. Why on earth should Gordon Brown's talents - say - be confined to the smaller canvas of the Edinburgh parliament? Nor is it to argue that it is a disparity confined to the Labour Party. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, for example, a long-time home ruler by instinct, who resigned from Margaret Thatcher's front bench when she ditched the Tories' devolution policy in the late Seventies, is intending to return to the Westminster parliament for the Edinburgh constituency of Pentlands. But it does underline a structural inconsistency at the heart of the home rule cause. It would always be a weakness that the brightest and best would pursue their careers at Westminster.

The difficulties which this was always bound to cause will be apparent now. There are divisions in the Scottish executive, for example between the former Labour Party general secretary Jack McConnell and some of the brighter women like Wendy Alexander and Susan Deacon. The result is that, Robin Cook having ruled himself out, Henry McLeish, a former middle-ranking UK minister, is the likeliest successor as a compromise candidate. It's no disrespect to Mr McLeish, a highly competent politician, to say has yet to prove he has the statesmanship of which Dewar at his frequent best was capable.

And that matters. It isn't just a matter of building on the popular credibility of the Scottish Parliament. It's also a matter, for all unionists - and Dewar proclaimed his unionism in that second reading speech - of ensuring that the Scottish nationalist threat is defeated, and that they cannot agitate for independence from the base of being the parliament's biggest single party after the next Scottish elections.

It may be, of course, that the parliament will simply find a lower, more mundane level, than the expectations which were once created for it. After all the SNP leader Alex Salmond has also given way to a less charismatic figure in John Sweeney. Nevertheless Dewar's passionate hopes of a parliament which could in time greatly enrich his country would have been kept more vigorously alive if he had lived longer, in good health, perhaps even in time passing the mantle to one of a younger generation of politicians making their careers in the Edinburgh parliament. In more than one sense Donald Dewar, easily the biggest figure in Scottish politics, died too young.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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