- Donald Dewar (1937-2000)
This obituary was written on 12 October, 2000, the day after the death of Donald Dewar, the first First Minister in the new Scottish Parliament.
All of Scotland was shocked yesterday by the announcement of the sudden death of Donald Dewar, the First Minister and head of the government in Scotland. He had seemed to be recovering well from a heart valve operation earlier this year. He had returned to a punishing work schedule after three months of convalescing.
But on Tuesday, a few hours after he had a heavy fall on the steps of his official residence in Edinburgh, he said that he was feeling unwell and was persuaded to go for a check-up at the hospital. He was diagnosed as having suffered a massive brain haemorrhage and, after a spell on a life support system, died in the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. It is thought that the blood thinning and anti-clotting drugs he was taking after his heart operation could have contributed to the leakage of blood. The life support machine was switched off only after his children had arrived during the following morning of Wednesday 11 October (from London and Brussels).
Quite apart from the suddenness of his departure, the shock is felt so much more in Scotland because Donald Dewar was so well liked and respected by people throughout the country, regardless of political persuasion. Politicians these days don't get much affection and respect but Donald Dewar earned both of these, in abundance.
Scotland is a small place and his loss is being felt as if it was one of the family who has passed away. Hardened political commentators who have learned to admire and respect him not just as a politician but as a human being have been visibly shaken. Cynical civil servants were known to adore him and went an extra mile (or ten) for him.
Father of the Nation
The description "Father of the Nation" which is being used frequently about him, seems all the more appropriate because it was Donald Dewar's drive, determination and skill which turned the dream of the return of Scotland's first Parliament for nearly 300 years into a reality. He pushed for devolution at a time when it was not a popular concept even within his own Labour Party but, (along with his friend John Smith who became Leader of the Labour Party but died of a heart attack before he could become elected as Prime Minister) kept doggedly advocating the concept until it became party policy. Even then, he had to fight hard to get the novel ideas accepted by the Cabinet in Westminster.
In the campaign to get the backing of the Scottish electorate, his inclusive approach persuaded not only the Liberal Democrats but also the Scottish Nationalists to participate in a joint effort. Large parts of the Act of the Westminster Parliament which set up the Scottish Parliament were drafted by Donald Dewar himself. Introducing the Bill he pointed to the first sentence which said simply There shall be a Scottish Parliament. "I rather like that sentence" he said.
His political astuteness meant led to him proposing a form of proportional representation for the election of the members of the Scottish Parliament, resulting in a better balance between the parties. This lead to a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats which has proved to be more workable than many had expected.
Despite being a Member of Parliament for 20 years at Westminster, he spent much of his career in opposition as the Conservatives dominated politics and won elections over 17 years. He was appointed Secretary of State for Scotland three years ago by Tony Blair, before taking on the post as first First Minister in the Scottish Parliament, only 18 months ago.
On the first day of that Parliament, all the Members spontaneously burst into applause when he took his seat. Modest as always, he immediately held up his hand to stop them - but they just carried on.
A Decent Human Being
Donald Dewar had old-fashioned values of decency and a desire to help others. Tributes to him have emphasised his integrity, straightforwardness ("what you see is what you got"), drive, phenomenal hard work and determination - and modesty turned into an art form. He was a towering figure, both physically, intellectually and in political life. He was a brilliant debater and his acerbic wit could demolish opponents - but with a twinkle in his eye and no rancour.
He was a cultured, well-read man who loved art and literature but who could still relate well to the "man in the street" - his constituents in Anniesland in Glasgow could always get to see him about their problems and he could be seen doing his own shopping at the local supermarket buying fish fingers to cook for himself at home. He was the despair of the "spin doctors" and marketing consultants. A tall, gangly, untidy man, he was once persuaded to "smarten himself up" with a new suit for a TV interview. The next day he asked a constituent in Glasgow what he thought of the programme. "I liked your suit Donald" was the reply. "But what about the argument I was putting forward?" That had not registered, so the smart suit was put away in the wardrobe, never to be seen again.
The story is told of a new security guard finding his office looking a "mess" and reporting that it must have been burgled. Donald arrived the next day to say that was the way it always was. But he could find a quotation in a book in minutes and his early legal training gave him the ability to deal with mind-numbing parliamentary detail with relish.
In a leader in the Scotsman newspaper they said "It is rare for a politician who can command respect from his fellow-parliamentarians, loyalty from civil servants and liking from ordinary voters. The First Minister could count on all three."
John Reid, the present Secretary of State for Scotland in the Westminster Parliament pointed out that few politicians have a lasting, concrete legacy to leave behind them. But in Donald Dewar's case, his lasting monument will not only be the return of the institution of the Scottish Parliament after a gap of 300 years, but also the new Parliament building at Holyrood - very much Donald's project. It is ironic that the professional architect for that project, Enric Miralles, died of a brain tumour earlier this year.
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