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A comfortably British Scot

29 October 2005

12:00 AM

29 October 2005

12:00 AM

Donald Dewar edited by Wendy Alexander

Mainstream, pp.256, 9.99

Donald Dewar once said to me, ‘I can’t stand your journalism, but I like your novels.’ It was perhaps characteristic of him that he put it in that order, the disapproval first. It wasn’t just that he was given to speaking his mind, or that he was capable, as his friend, Fiona Ross, one of the contributors to this memorial volume of essays, remarks, ‘of spectacular rudeness’. It was rather that, like so many of us Scots brought up in the Presbyterian tradition, he was more comfortable criticising than praising.

His political career was a long one, and for most of it he was condemned to wander in the waste land of opposition. This was frustrating and I suspect he often felt it was an essay in failure. Yet it was in what were for him the bleak years that he made the first of his two great contributions to the political and public life of Scotland; he kept the Labour party on the rails. This wasn’t easy. In the early Eighties he faced what the journalist Alf Young, then chairman of the Garscadden Labour party, calls ‘an insidious deselection challenge from sections of his own constituency party’; not only insidious, but nasty. Later, when he was shadow secretary of state for Scotland, ‘some Labour MPs,’ as Malcolm Rifkind writes, ‘were so fearful of the SNP that they adopted its rhetoric and posturing. Donald was never tempted, so far as I am aware, in this direction.’

Rifkind is right to make this point. Dewar was intensely Scottish, but also comfortably British. He was the chief architect of devolution, but remained a Unionist. A Scottish Parliament was to be set up in order to make for the better government of Scotland within the United Kingdom. Yet in the Referendum campaign he collaborated with Alex Salmond and the SNP who saw devolution as a stepping-stone to independence. Dewar wanted to strengthen the United Kingdom, Salmond to break the Union. As I wrote at the time, ‘They can’t both be right.’ So far it seems that Dewar may have judged more wisely. The novelist William McIlvanney recently remarked, ‘I sense a recession in the strength of Scottishness almost just by having the Parliament.’ But of course six years is a very short time in the history of a nation.


Most of the contributors to this volume write from a Labour party perspective; naturally enough. One after the other they stress Dewar’s commitment to ‘social justice’, a term they use, as he did, as if its meaning was self-evident. Wendy Alexander, his disciple, whose career has sadly stalled since his death, writes that his starting-point was often ‘what sort of world are we creating for our children? Will it be characterised by more opportunity, more diversity, more security?’ These are not especially socialist questions; indeed Margaret Thatcher asked them too.

Dewar won both respect and affection. Even political opponents recognised that he was not only an able politician but a good man. He was old-fashioned of course, indifferent to image, contemptuous of spin. His interests ranged far beyond politics: history, literature, painting and sport were among them. It is not absurd to see him as a belated heir of the Scottish Enlightenment.

This little book is testimony to the affection and regard in which he was held. I never knew him well. The collection of essays here makes me regret that I didn’t know him better. One of the best is from a childhood friend, Charlie Allan. Himself a remarkable character — university lecturer in economics, farmer, folk-singer, journalist, Highland Games athlete, and much more besides — Charlie writes that he broke down in tears when he heard of Donald’s death:

We weren’t close friends as adults and I don’t really think I was crying for those boyhood days. I think I was crying for Scotland. I could easily imagine our devolved status descending into chaos and I couldn’t see a queue of Donald Dewars waiting to take his place.

He had been ‘proud of having a first minister who had read so much he could write his own speeches and had a Cadell over his fireplace. And how long will it be,’ he asks, ‘before we have another first minister particular enough to say Scotland with a ‘t’ in the middle?’ Long enough, I daresay.


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