Profile: Donald Dewar the architect of the Scottish Parliament
Holyrood looks back at the man who got the Scottish Parliament off the ground
Image credit: Press Association
“There shall be a Scottish parliament. I like that,” said Donald Dewar as he launched the Scotland Bill in 1997.
Those words have gone down in history, and if there is one person whose name will forever be linked to the Scottish Parliament, it is Donald Dewar.
As secretary of state for Scotland, he oversaw the devolution process and as Scotland’s first first minister he got the Scottish Parliament off the ground, both figuratively, leading the first cohort of MSPs, and literally, through the Holyrood project that commissioned the building we have today.
Henry McLeish, who worked with Dewar as a minister in both the UK and Scottish governments and succeeded him as first minister, remembers the early days as being about “building structures, building processes, building networks, very much nuts and bolts stuff in terms of the actual facility of the parliament itself”.
“All of this was new to us,” he says. “When people look back on it, they tend to think that because the parliament’s now 17 years old that it was the same 17 years ago, but it wasn’t.
“You know, there were new MSPs, a lot of inexperienced MSPs, a lot of enthusiasm, but nobody before then had been able to say, ‘this is how the place will work’, so in that respect, Donald was the custodian of the white paper."
“Donald was unable to fulfil his destiny in the sense of seeing in five or ten years’ time the parliament in action, but what he did do is have the vision to see that you had to get the foundations right,” he adds.
But Dewar’s role goes back further than that, from when he took Labour into the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1988, defended the additional member voting system, which was chosen as a compromise between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and in fighting for the default to be for everything to be devolved that wasn’t specifically reserved.
“The parliament we have today is down to him. He basically set the rules that said that everything that could be devolved should be devolved and everything that was reserved was reserved,” says David Whitton, Dewar’s special adviser and spokesperson in the two and a half years leading up to his death.
Wendy Alexander, who worked with Dewar on the Scottish Constitutional Convention and later as a special adviser before becoming an MSP and Scottish minister, calls Dewar’s decision to push ahead with the PR system of voting, despite being “acutely aware” that it would deny his own party a majority in the parliament, an “unusually selfless political act”, but says Dewar was quintessentially not a sectarian politician.
He understood “that Scots like their constitutional change to be the product of consensus between parties”.
She mentions “very fraught votes at Labour conferences” about the voting system, where Dewar had to push the party to stick to what had been agreed by the convention as Labour members couldn’t understand why they would voluntarily give up power after 16 years in opposition.
“He felt that it was important for the parliament to be seen as not a tribal payoff to the loyalty of Labour voters, but a constitutional advance for the nation as a whole,” she says.
In terms of the new parliamentary powers, McLeish recalls: “He had to beat back the big beasts of the [UK] Parliament who wanted always to cut back on the vision of Scotland in the white paper, who wanted to see less devolution for Scotland.”
Dewar became known as ‘the father of the nation’, but it wasn’t a term he was keen on himself. “If I wanted to annoy him, I would call him the father of the nation,” laughs David Whitton.
“He got quite annoyed about it. But if he wasn’t the father of the nation, he was certainly the architect of the parliament in many ways.”
Alexander, McLeish and Whitton all describe Dewar as privately very funny. “He could be very amusing, but very self-deprecating at the same time,” says Whitton.
He had a “laconic kind of attitude and mannerisms and never looked particularly cheery, but he had a fantastic sense of humour,” says McLeish.
“He was in private very funny, actually,” Alexander laughs. “And personally very kind. He once described himself as ‘selectively gregarious’ and that was a fantastic Donaldism. It kind of captured the man.”
She also talks of him as “extraordinarily dedicated” with a “deep, deep, deep passion for social justice”. McLeish remembers Dewar as an “absolute muncher”, recalling how he could get through platefuls of chocolate biscuits in meetings.
And of course there was Dewar’s famously ruffled appearance.
“He got a very, very hard time in the press for these superficial considerations, but actually, I think the extraordinary outpouring of grief after his death, at least a small part of that was people questioning themselves about these more superficial judgements of ‘what a first minster should look and act like’,” says Alexander.
“Of course this was at the height of New Labour and I always think it was ironic that Donald was the least likely manifestation in PR or media terms of that.
“He was wholly committed to the New Labour project. He loved the idea that Labour was a party that would appeal to everybody who was one pay cheque away from poverty and it was inclusive and it reached out and it wasn’t in any sense narrow in its appeal, but he had no truck with the modern trappings of media management.”
Alexander describes Dewar as having “a very cerebral, bookish side”, but also “an extraordinarily warm public side”, which was why, she suggests, he had a successful period in the mid-1990s as the Labour chief whip.
“He did that in a very different mould to the enforcer image that chief whips usually have. He did it with a much lighter and more empathetic touch.”
She also recalls that he could be a good gossip, but he genuinely cared about what was going on in people’s lives and built very strong friendships across party lines.
“One of Donald’s strengths was he had friends in all parties and none, and that was important to him,” she said.
“He also wasn’t just a politician. He had a deep hinterland of interest in art, in literature. He was profoundly Scottish in that sense. He had a deep, deep, deep understanding of Scottish history.
“He always said that if he wasn’t in politics or when he retired he would write a biography of Thomas Chalmers, who led the Disruption in 1843, and I’m sure he would have.
“And I think those who were closest to him felt deeply aggrieved on his behalf that he was robbed of that rich retirement beyond politics.”
This sense of Scottish history came across strongly in his speech at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, where he talked of “the shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards, the speak of the Mearns rooted in the land, the discourse of the Enlightenment when Edinburgh and Glasgow were indeed a light held to the intellectual life of Europe, the wild cry of the great pipes and back to the distant noise of battles in the days of Bruce and Wallace.”
And his words towards the end of the speech sum up what could be said by all MSPs: “We are fallible. We will make mistakes. But we will never lose sight of what brought us here: the striving to do right by the people of Scotland, to respect their priorities, to better their lot and to contribute to the common weal.”
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