The Father of the Nation, who made good on the unfinished business of devolution

Andrew Grice
Thursday 12 October 2000 00:00

Scotland is mourning the man called "Father of the Nation" after the death of Donald Dewar, the First Minister. His close friend John Smith, also struck down in his prime in 1994, was the architect of devolution, but Mr Dewar completed what Mr Smith called his "unfinished business" last year at the opening of Scotland's first Parliament for 300 years.

Scotland is mourning the man called "Father of the Nation" after the death of Donald Dewar, the First Minister. His close friend John Smith, also struck down in his prime in 1994, was the architect of devolution, but Mr Dewar completed what Mr Smith called his "unfinished business" last year at the opening of Scotland's first Parliament for 300 years.

Mr Dewar was an unusual politician, a genial giant who towered above, and viewed with distaste, the faction-fighting which often destabilises New Labour's hierarchy. He was not Old Labour or New Labour, but the embodiment of Scottish Labour, determined to guard its independence from London.

Though he was an MP at Westminster for 26 years, Mr Dewar never lost his Scottish roots. The vacuum left by his death illustrates that he was the right man to deliver devolution and smooth ruffled feathers during the transitional period.

Mr Dewar saw little need for spin and public relations. In Cardiff this year, a dishevelled Mr Dewar bumped into Peter Mandelson before a ministerial meeting on health. The image-conscious Northern Ireland Secretary, looked at Mr Dewar's loose tie and dandruff-strewn lawyer's suit, and reminded him politely that they would soon be on parade in front of the television cameras.

Mr Dewar said with a smile: "I have been away from Millbank for so long I have forgotten that I have to perform for you people."

Born in 1937 and only child of a doctor, Mr Dewar had a solitary childhood which he did not shake off until he studied law at Glasgow University. He was a contemporary of Mr Smith, the former Labour leader, and Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats foreign affairs spokesman. Mr Dewar won the nickname "The Gannet" for his ability to devour food quickly and tendency to stuff his pockets with sausage rolls.

He entered Parliament in 1966 as MP for Aberdeen South, but was defeated in 1970. It was his blackest year: his wife Alison, with whom he had two children, left him for Derry Irvine, another contemporary at Glasgow, now the Lord Chancellor, and with whom Mr Dewar would sit in Tony Blair's Cabinet.

Mr Dewar cut a lonely figure again. Mr Campbell and his wife Elspeth invited him to Christmas dinner, but he said he preferred to stay home alone with fish fingers and a book. He returned to the law then winning his seat, Glasgow Anniesland, in 1978. During Labour's long wilderness years, he sometimes confided privately that he doubted he would get the chance to implement what he and Mr Smith called the "settled will of the Scottish people".

Politics was his life. He did not want the trappings of power, travelling happily to Westminster on the number 24 bus, only the chance to make a difference. That arrived after the 1997 general election, when Mr Blair switched him from Labour's chief whip to Secretary of State for Scotland. He led the referendum campaign in 1998 and piloted the Scotland Bill through Westminster to deliver the Scottish Parliament.

In June 1999, at the opening of Scottish Parliament, the new First Minister said proudly: "Today there is a new voice in the land, the voice of a democratic Parliament. A voice to shape Scotland, a voice above all for the future."

His unifying skills helped to secure a coalition with the Liberal Democrats after an election campaign which exposed the downside of Mr Dewar's approach to politics. Colleagues despaired of his lack of strategy and campaigning skills, and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, had to take over the Labour campaign to head off the threat from the Scottish National Party.

Nor was Mr Dewar's path smooth after the elections. He was criticised by the Scottish media over issues such as tuition fees and the new Parliament building at Holyrood, nicknamed "Donald's Dome", whose cost was said to have risen from £50m to £230m.

Then the Scottish executive's plans to abolish Section 28, which bans the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities, provoked a major controversy, and raised fresh questions about his political judgement. But the executive won the day, after concessions.

Earlier this year, Mr Dewar had major heart surgery. On his return to work in August, he was confronted with a crisis. Thousands of students had been sent incomplete, late and inaccurate examination results. The man who gave and demanded loyalty refused to sack Sam Galbraith, his Education Minister. Then Mr Dewar had to help handle the fuel protests, requiring unexpected meetings in London of the ministers set up to deal with the crisis.

Colleagues say Mr Dewar was working too hard, too soon. He struggled to walk up stairs and got tired late at night. At the Labour conference in Brighton, he was ready for his bed earlier than usual, but dutifully held the ring at Scots Night until the special guest, John Prescott, appeared after 11pm. His spokesman David Whitton, said Mr Dewar's health was fine. "Mentally he was more than capable of taking on the work, but physically he seemed to get a wee bit tired by the end of the day. He was trying to build parts into his day and week where he could sit back and think about things rather than being at constant rounds of meetings, but that goes with the type of job it is. It would make huge demands on anybody.

"I wouldn't describe it so much as stubbornness as a sense of duty on his behalf. He committed himself wholeheartedly to the job."

Mr Dewar was intertwined with Mr Smith in life and death. Ironically, he had penned the foreword for a new collection of Mr Smith's speeches, Guiding Light. Mr Dewar's tribute to his friend could equally provide his own obituary: uneasy with razzmattazz, a complex man with unyielding principles who believed in social justice and redistribution of opportunity and wealth.

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