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Donald Dewar


A tribute by Jim Lynch of the Scots Independent Newspaper:

The sudden death of First Minister Donald Dewar MSP MP on 11th October 2000 has shocked and saddened everyone in Scotland, and there is no doubt that the political scene will be the poorer for his going. Irrespective of ones politics, there is no denying the profound effect that Donald Dewar had on Scotland; he was definitely the Father of Devolution, and whether he will be seen as the Father of the Nation will emerge as time goes on.

Donald Dewar (centre)
Leaders of the three political parties which, arriving from entirely different directions, nevertheless supported the Home Rule Referendum, came briefly together again at Edinburgh University in August 1998 to receive Andrew Fletcher awards from the Saltire Society, "for services to Scotland". Society President Paul Scott recalled the outstanding result which he attributed to the co-operative efforts of the three leaders. L to R Lib Dem Jim Wallace, Secretary of State Donald Dewar and SNP national convener Alex Salmond showing off their awards. (photo courtesy of Fae MacMurnan)

His first foray into the political field was as the MP for South Aberdeen, but he will be remembered best for his victory in Garscadden in 1978; this was a by-election which the Media had decided would be an SNP triumph, but safe Labour seats usually remain with Labour, and Donald Dewar was a safe pair of hands. He spent most of his political years in the wilderness, as did all Opposition MPs during the Tory reign from 1979 to 1997, but worked away within the Labour Party with the late John Smith to produce a measure of self government for Scotland. When Labour came to power in 1997, he was appointed Secretary of State for Scotland, a post Lord George Robertson expected would be his, but Tony Blair made a shrewd choice. Donald Dewar was passionately committed to restoring a Scottish Parliament, and his greatest moment came when he read out the preamble to the Scotland Act "There shall be a Scottish Parliament..."

In 1997 his campaigning with Alex Salmond and Jim Wallace, ably assisted by Sir Sean Connery, resulted in an overwhelming vote in the Referendum for the Parliament, although the sudden death of Princess Diana seemed to cast a shadow on that, too; nonetheless, there was a resounding Yes Yes from the people of Scotland to a Parliament with fiscal powers. His acceptance that there would be no barrier to Scotland proceeding to Independence if the people voted for this was what prompted Alex Salmond to throw the weight of the SNP behind the campaign.

Donald Dewar stood head and shoulders above his Labour colleagues, and his untimely death has profound political implications for Scotland. The Labour Party will now have to select a new First Minister, but Donald Dewar’s place in history is assured; there can only be one first First Minister.

Some pictures from his funeral on 18th October which was attended by Charles, Prince of Wales, The Prime Minister, Tony Blair and the Chancellor Gordon Brown amongst others.


Glasgow Cathedral
Glasgow Cathedral

Inside Glasgow Cathedral
Inside Glasgow Cathedral

Inside the Cathedral
Inside the Cathedral

Tony Blair Prime Minister left & Prince Charles right
Tony Blair Prime Minister left & Prince Charles right

Leaving the cathedral
Leaving the cathedral

The front of the Cathedral
The front of the Cathedral

Prince Charles and the with Donald's children
Prince Charles with Donald Dewar's children

Leaving the Cathedral for the private funeral
Leaving the Cathedral for the private funeral

Prince Charles
Prince Charles

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown

Crowds line the way in Glasgow
Crowds line the way in Glasgow

Another scene from Glasgow
Another scene from Glasgow

A young Donald Dewar with his children
A young Donald Dewar with his children

Donald Dewar
Donald Dewar

Donald Dewar
Donald Dewar

Donald Dewar
Donald Dewar


Donald Dewar: "A celebration of his life"
By Trevor Royle and Alan Taylor
Publication Date: Oct 15 2000 in the Herald

"NOW I know what it feels like to be a horse," declared Donald Dewar. He was speaking at a lunch in Glasgow in May last year, less than a week before the people of Scotland went to the polls to elect its first parliament for 292 years. He paused just long enough to let the words sink in before he delivered the punchline: "Because these days I'm constantly being groomed."

The audience of hardbitten hacks and New Labour apparatchiks dissolved in laughter. Here was Dewar in his element, a stand up comedian in the Chick Murray mould "arms flailing like a combine harvester out of control," as one friend has described his speaking technique, he was the warm-up man for none other than Tony Blair, his former roommate at Westminster.

It is a side of Dewar which was rarely allowed to surface in public. Wry, witty, laconic, dry as a rusk, deadpan as the Rev I M Jolly, he had the personality to charm even the most cynical of crowds. His vanity, he once said with typical self-deprecation, was "an incurable delusion that people like me". But clearly it was not a delusion; people really did like him, for himself and - not least - for his obvious aversion to being "groomed".

The very idea that Donald Dewar would be receptive to a New Labour makeover is risible. He would not countenance fussing or fretting. Ron Ferguson, minister of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, has described him as "a spin-doctor's worst nightmare". Though his suits were expensive and well-cut, he contrived, says Ferguson, somehow to make them look as if he had slept in them.

Substance not style was his priority. In that sense, he was a politician from a bygone age, to whom a soundbite was an alien language not worth learning. He preferred the unglamorous routine of constituency surgeries and the hard slog of the streets of Garscadden and Anniesland to Saatchi and Saatchi slogans and appearances on This Morning with Richard and Judy. "For him," wrote Ewen MacAskill, the Scotsman's former political editor, in the Guardian last Thursday, "a good night out was driving around Glasgow or some other part of the west of Scotland, helping activists climb up ladders, putting up posters, and then piling into a curry shop."

It was as if he was always wary of getting above himself, of giving himself airs and graces, a peculiarly Scottish trait. He knew his roots and remained loyal to them throughout his life. "He had a great regard for the High Presbyterian days," says Ron Ferguson. "He looked and moved like an 18th century divine with haemorrhoids. You could never envisage Donald lying on a beach - even reading Proust."

Famously, he never indulged in holidays. While some of his colleagues last week took the opportunity of the parliamentary recess to take an autumn break, for Dewar, who recently had major heart surgery, it was the usual round of greetings, meetings and briefings. Such a punishing schedule would have left much younger and fitter men peching in his wake, let alone a 63 year-old with a history of heart complaint. Married to politics as many have suggested, he was driven by an insatiable desire to make the parliament, for which he had worked all his political life, succeed and live up to the expectations of those who had fought for the "unfinished business" to be completed? Donald Dewar was under no illusion on that score and was impatient to move things on. In doing so, he probably hastened his death, a price which plunged the nation into mourning and produced heartrending, hypocritical headlines in newspapers which only a few days before he died had been virulent in his denunciation.

How he would have savoured the irony. No one appreciated better than he the Scottish tendency to lambast the living and hero-worship the dead. In the case of himself he was embarrassed when eulogised, preferring to stay out of the limelight or puncture praise with a joke told against himself. Only on the night that the Scottish parliament was reconvened after a hiatus of almost three centuries did he allow himself to enjoy a moment of glory, strolling the streets of Edinburgh as night fell enjoying the celebrations, a proud grin fixed on his face as his back was slapped to bruising.

"It was certainly the most satisfying moment of my life," he said later, the apotheosis of a career which had many highs and indelible lows. Throughout it all, though, the remarkable thing about him was how little he changed. "In one sense," says merchant banker Angus Grossart, who knew Dewar from their schooldays, "you could say he was unreformed. He really did retain a lot of his original qualities, including the subversive wit and domestic indifference."

He was the only child of elderly parents, which he did not recommend. However, he was at pains to stress that his childhood was generally happy, if unusual. Both his parents suffered from serious illness. His father, who was a well-to-do Glasgow dermatologist, had tuberculosis, while his mother developed a brain tumour. Donald Campbell Dewar was born in August 1937 as portents of war reverberated around the globe and he was sent at the age of two and a half to a small boarding school in Perthshire which was run by friends of his parents. Two years later he went south to another boarding school, Beverley, at Bonchester Bridge near Hawick, which was used to house refugees from the London blitz. "I have memories of the shrubberies, of the pets in the stable block, particularly a black and white rabbit," he recalled last year. "I suffered from the delusion that I owned it."

But when he was nine he returned to Glasgow and went to Mosspark Primary School, where he spent a miserable year. "I remember being puzzled by that," he said, "very forlorn and lost because of the sharp change from a small, closed, rural environment. There was a certain amount of teasing because of my accent, which was part Hawick part non-English because of my previous classmates."

Dewar may have hated his time at Mosspark Primary School - he recalled rushing for the bus at four o'clock "and it was not just because I thought it was leaving" - but there were occasional glimpses of Eden. In the summer of 1945, as war-time Scotland started getting used to the brave new world of the welfare state, he and his parents went on the first of several never-to-be-forgotten holidays to the north-east. He stayed on the farm of their friends, the Allans, near the small Aberdeenshire town of Methlick.

The farmer of Little Ardo, John R Allan, was much more than that. He had written Farmer's Boy, a wonderfully luminous account of his childhood in what he called "the thin, cold shoulder of Scotland", an area which inspired in him extremes of affection and dismay. Allan had also just tried his hand at politics, having fought the Conservative stronghold of East Aberdeenshire for Labour and been seen off by the sitting tenant, the dashing wife-plunderer, Bob Boothby. And the Allans themselves were no mean family, being related to the Mackies, farming magnates now also famous for their ice-cream, who dominated the region's local politics.

For the shy eight-year-old, it was a revelation. Little Ardo had been in the hands of the Allan family for more than 150 years and the surrounding area was steeped in Scottish history. From the farm he could see the Braes of Gight where the poet Byron's mother was born; nearby was Bennachie on whose slopes Picts and Romans fought; and the songs of the region echoed the glories of Mormond Hill and Bonnie Ythanside.

All this must have been highly attractive to the bookish Dewar but the bucolic idyll brought out another side in him. Charlie Allan, his equal in years and later, as an author and academic, his coeval in letters, remembers the two of them fishing in the Ythan and "chasing pigeons in the barn till they dropped and we could wring their necks", ideal training for the future chief whip.

All this was a far cry from the bookworm who "could read whole books without pictures" and who taught the locals to forsake cops and robbers for Wallace and Longshanks. Allan, who went on to become something of a Renaissance man as farmer, economics don, author and journalist, never forgot that grave, gangly boy.

On learning of Dewar's death he said he had only cried twice in his life. The first were "tears of rage and humiliation" in 1991 when the local minister refused to grant his father a funeral service because he had not been a member of the Kirk. "The second time was when I heard the official announcement on Radio Scotland that Donald was dead."

Later, in their teens, Dewar repaid the debt when Allan visited him at his parents' house in Lacrosse Terrace. Ibrox and Anniesland were visited to watch Rangers and Glasgow Accies and although Dewar had never matured into a sportsman, he was trainspotterish when it came to sporting facts and figures, a lifelong enthusiasm that could leave the cynical claiming he had made it up as statistics from the lower divisions were produced with unerring accuracy. He also knew all about technique, teaching Allan to rugby tackle in the classical style of the day, hitting the opponent low in the thighs and sliding to grasp his ankles.

By then, Dewar was attending Glasgow Academy, "where sons of Glasgow doctors ended up". It was a school which championed sporting excellence, leaving Dewar, who had Harry Potter-ish tendencies, cold. There were inexplicable rules "such as wearing caps", which may explain his later aversion to headgear, and random punishments if you were "caught in the open by some authoritarian figure called a prefect". He found it hard to make friends and later thought of himself in those days as "a happy misfit". Towards the end of his time at Academy, however, he encountered kindred spirits such as Angus Grossart and based himself in the library, "not reading books, I hasten to say, but using it as a social centre".

Nevertheless, he was never made a prefect, the only person who repeated sixth year to achieve this dubious distinction. "That must be some kind of a judgement on me," he reflected.

His flowering, however, came when he went to Glasgow University, which brought him into contact with a group of men who were to influence him throughout his life. There was John Smith, already a political animal but also a great party-goer. At his funeral Dewar recalled: "Those who saw John as [sedate], dark-suited and safe knew not the man. He could start a party in an empty room, and often did." His death in 1994 devasted Dewar but it galvanised him, too. Like Smith, he subscribed to the view that we are not put on this world simply to enjoy. A Scottish sense of duty impelled both of them, as did the idea that there could be no privilege without responsibility.

His was by any standards an outstanding generation. As well as Dewar, Smith and Grossart, there were Menzies Campell, the Liberal Democrat MP who is tipped to become Speaker of the House of Commons, Jimmy Gordon, now Lord Gordon of Strathblane, Ross Harper, the lawyer, broadcaster Donald McCormack, Cameron Munro, until recently the European Union's representative in Edinburgh, and Derry Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, who was to cause Dewar huge emotional upheaval when he had an affair with his wife, Alison.

Dewar first did a history degree, then law, which would give him a career to fall back on. But of more significance was the milieu of the university and the role it played in transforming the geeky, bookish, bespectacled teenager into a confident and accomplished student, which he later confirmed. "I came up to university remarkably inhibited and limited in my social experience and all that kind of changed, which was a great thing. I discovered in the debating society that I could, in a staccato kind of way, string together words and phrases. It wasn't the debates that were important, frankly, it was what was built around them. In those days there was a tremendous social structure, drinking structure, social experience in every sense." The hub was the union where, he said, "you could eat, drink and find yourself a lumber for the night, or whatever".

You can almost hear the smile in his voice as he said that. There can be few more incongruous notions than Donald Dewar on the prowl for female prey. It was also at the university that he acquired the nickname "Gannet", on account of his gargantuan appetite. It stuck with him, as did his friends. It is one of the constants of his life, a bond forged at a formative age. "We didn't think we were marked for success or greatness," says Angus Grossart. "Everybody thought they were ordinary. Our horizons were getting a good degree and working hard. It was an immensely busy life."

Grossart and Dewar's careers crossed throughout their lives but when they met at official dinners it was always a relief to find themselves seated together, when they could ignore banking and politics and talk about books and painting and history. Grossart confirms Dewar's navety when it came to the culinary arts. They spent a weekend in Fife lately. When Grossart produced a shepherd's pie, almost immediately after returning from an afternoon visiting a private library, Dewar was astonished. Mastering a microwave was beyond him. The same was true of dishwashers. There was one in the kitchen of his new flat in Cleveden Road in Glasgow but he couldn't open its door. There were signs, though, that he was tiring of dining out in Byres Road or snacking at Safeway after he'd done his shopping. His friend, Matt Spicer, recalls how Dewar called his wife, saying he'd bought a chicken and didn't know what to do with it. She gave him Nigella Lawson's recipe, which requires butter to be rubbed into the skin of the bird as if you were applying the most expensive handcream. Not an activity one would expect Dewar to be familar with.

But the image of the endearing eccentric is in danger of overshadowing the immense achievement of a man driven by a passion to eradicate inequality and poverty. Negligent he may have been in his personal appearance and his domestic arrangements but he was also pragmatic, punctilious and a stickler for detail. Menzies Campbell was spot on when he said that Donald Dewar and Scotland were made for each other. With his knowledge of his country's literature and history and his respect for artists, particularly the Scottish Colourists, a love honed by many pleasant meanderings down unexpected byways, Dewar had the kind of hinterland once common in cultivated Scots. Indeed, he was always slightly puzzled and embarrassed when his books and paintings were mentioned, as if he found it difficult to believe that others did not share his tastes.

But it was not just book learning or the reading of Burns and Hume, or Cockburn or Chalmers, which provided fodder for the mind and clutter for his flat in the West End. Scotland helped form him in many other untold ways. Not only was he a product of his Glasgow middle class roots, the lace-curtain respectability celebrated by the novelist Guy McCrone, which gave him his early education and his collection of Peploes, Fergussons and McTaggarts, but his training in history and law helped form the radical inside the anonymous - if crumpled - suit.

Partly, he was affected by Scottish Labour history with its totemic figures of Keir Hardie and the more recent Red Clydesiders, the Wheatleys and Maxtons who vowed to export the revolution to Westminster. But these connections are too obvious. There was always the touch of the Coventanter about Dewar that even his best friends could not ignore - not the mood of religious exaltation which took fanatics such as James Renwick to the scaffold - but the calmer and more considered views of Robert Baillie, who struggled with his conscience before signing the National Covenant in 1638.

In the late 1980s, when it seemed that devolution was as far away as it ever would be, Dewar once confessed to a Scottish historian that he felt many affinities with Baillie, also a Glasgow graduate. It took time and much soul-searching before the young minister of Kilwinning agreed to throw in his lot with the Covenanters, because he realised that in so doing he might be violating his loyalty to the Crown. His heart told him that the National Covenant had been produced to protect Scotland's interests and was a statement of the country's intent. But he also knew that it might be construed as a threat to the authority of King Charles I.

"That's the beauty or the terror of Scottish history," Dewar said. "We are all affected by it and its influences are never far away." The comparison with his own position on the devolution issue was left unsaid but its shadow hovered uneasily over the conversation. Now he has sculpted his own place in the country's story. His modesty would doubtless have it otherwise but there is no denying it. "I am asked what I am," he said in Dublin at the end of September. "I am a Scot, a citizen of the United Kingdom, and someone who has a very real interest in the future of the European Union."

It was a brilliant speech, casually erudite, humourful, urbane and broadranging. But to those present it was clear the heart surgery had had a profound physical effect. He told the historian Tom Devine that in the next few months he would have to reappraise the situation if there was no surge of the energy of old. Sadly, he never got the chance. One slip and he was taken, like Burns' snowflake on a river, a moment white then gone forever. But he leaves a legacy which cannot be easily ignored. It can be summed up in the six sonorous words he himself wrote and which will be his epitaph: "There shall be a Scottish parliament."


Click here to read Donald Dewar's speech at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, 1 July 1999

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