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Last Updated: Friday, 8 October, 2004, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Donald Dewar, Father of a Nation?
By Andrew McFadyen
BBC Radio Scotland

Donald Dewar achieved a unique status among Scottish politicians.

Readers with exceptionally good memories may recall that he once came top of a poll of most romantic MPs conducted by House of Commons secretaries.

The deeply serious member for Glasgow Garscadden was described as a Heathcliffe-type figure.

Donald Dewar
Donald Dewar was a driving force behind devolution

Dewar seems an unlikely object of affection for swooning office girls, but he had an unusual ability to touch people.

Who else has been acclaimed as "father of a nation" and dismissed by the same writers as the architect of Scotland's greatest financial debacle?

On Saturday, the new Holyrood parliament will be officially opened by the Queen.

It should have been the realisation of Donald Dewar's dream, but 10 times over budget and three years late it has done serious damage to devolution.

Dewar chose the historic site in the heart of Edinburgh and chaired the selection panel that commissioned architect Enric Miralles.

Dewar was the minister on a highly contentious major political issue which went wrong and he should have been on top of it
Prof James Mitchell
According to Muir Russell, the most senior civil servant involved in the project, he wanted to make "a positive statement about the success of devolution, and about the success of Scotland".

Unfortunately, the project has done the opposite.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie spent a year investigating the affair.

His report attacked civil servants for not telling Dewar about the building's spiralling price at a crucial stage, and not telling ministers about the "catastrophically expensive" construction management contract.

It did not seem to occur to him that elected politicians should take the rap for mistakes made in their departments.

As Professor James Mitchell explains, we have a doctrine of individual ministerial accountability in this country.

Upturned boats

"Dewar was the minister on a highly contentious major political issue which went wrong and he should have been on top of it," he said.

If he were alive Dewar would undoubtedly have accepted his share of the blame for the mismanagement of the Holyrood project.

But in the end, it's not about bricks and mortar or even upturned boats.

We now have an iconic building that challenges our MSPs to raise their game.

It is the kind of place where members should feel embarrassed to be caught on camera passing sweeties along the back row, as happened in their temporary home on The Mound.

I can remember him saying it is going to be like holding on to the back of a tiger
Murray Elder
Dewar's legacy will be judged on their ability to change Scotland for the better.

He was committed to devolution from his political infancy.

Labour's one-time Housing Minister, Richard Crossman, describes him in his diary as a 'young Turk' campaigning for home rule way back in the 1960s.

Many Labour MPs came to terms with a Scottish Parliament only grudgingly, as a response to the rise of the SNP, or Margaret Thatcher's domination of Westminster politics.

Scottish Parliament
MSPs are settling in to the new parliament

But Dewar's commitment to home rule was rooted in his love of Scottish history and a genuine belief that it was the right thing to do.

Dewar's first crucial intervention in the history of home rule was that he pushed his party into the Constitutional Convention.

Nationalist myth-makers see Labour's participation as a panic response to defeat in the November 1988 Govan by-election.

The loss of a near 20,000 majority was undoubtedly shocking, but the key decisions were taken weeks earlier.

Dewar had publicly committed Labour to the Convention the previous month in a remarkable speech at Stirling University.

He told students that "Scots will have to live a little dangerously for a while".

Labour's former General Secretary, Murray Elder, said Dewar discussed this speech with him in advance.

"I can remember him saying it is going to be like holding on to the back of a tiger, we are going to have to live on our wits, but it is the right thing to do," he said.

The decision was forced through against strong opposition from a number of influential MPs.

Sam Galbraith said that he still believes Labour should not have compromised with other parties.

"He asked my views about going into the constitutional assembly and I was bitterly opposed to it, as were others. But of course, Donald won the day," Mr Galbraith said.

Labour's decision to join set them on a course which would ultimately lead to the restoration of the first Scottish Parliament in 300 years.

But the cost of agreeing a common scheme with the Liberal Democrats was proportional representation.

Donald Dewar
Dewar was described as a Heathcliffe-type figure

Jack McConnell, who was involved in the negotiations, hints that the decision was not a selfless act of charity.

The first minister said: "One of the side-benefits of having a proportional system is that parties with extreme views, like the SNP, can't unfairly dominate the electoral process."

The SNP may have been locked out of government, but Labour was effectively conceding that it would never again rule Scotland on its own.

The Constitutional Convention had agreed that devolution was the 'settled will' of the Scottish people and victory in a general election was a sufficient mandate for reform.

Tony Blair was not enthusiastic about devolution and he took a different view.

Referendum campaign

They were concerned about the length of time it would take to get the legislation through parliament and deeply worried about the potency of the Tories 'tartan tax' campaign.

Dewar's leadership of the referendum campaign was his most public contribution to the success of the home rule movement.

After 18 years of Tory government a big 'Yes, Yes' majority was always likely.

But there is strong evidence that Dewar increased the vote for home rule.

Jack McConnell said Dewar was trusted by the electorate and after decades campaigning for home rule he brought credibility to the argument.

Sam Galbraith
Sam Galbraith said he and Donald Dewar had heated exchanges

"He was able to bring people to that campaign that would have been hard for almost any other politician."

Alex Salmond claims that the joint campaign was very much a personal project for Dewar.

"If a different person had been secretary of state there would have been no recognition that the SNP had to take a step to campaign in favour of a parliament that was not an independent one," he said.

Dewar needed all his lawyerly skills and political authority to prevent the powers of the Scottish Parliament from being diluted by sceptical English ministers.

Some battles were lost.

Scottish appeal

The team who drafted the White Paper knew that the 'tartan tax' would impact disproportionately on low earners because it applied only to the basic rate of income tax and not to upper brackets.

They argued that Holyrood should have the power to vary income tax over the full range of UK tax bands.

But the proposal was swiftly disavowed by ministers from other departments who were keen to limit the scope of devolution.

Sam Galbraith said: "Donald and I had a major punch-up over abortion.

"He wanted it to be devolved and I was the health minister and was totally opposed to that, but Donald made the absolutely proper argument that if we could decide on the death penalty surely we could decide on abortion, which of course was right."

He said Dewar was over-ruled by Tony Blair who did not want to create the possibility of cross-border traffic.

Nevertheless, the late Scottish secretary should be credited with a sizeable victory for delivering a bill that substantially reflected the plan drawn up by the Constitutional Convention.

Dewar's legacy

Scots have a tendency to lambast the living and hero-worship the dead, but Dewar's unique standing among Scottish politicians tells us something important about ourselves.

His cultural Presbyterianism and intellect gave him a distinctly Scottish appeal.

Even his crumpled appearance added to his authority - you could obviously trust the integrity of a man who didn't own a coat.

Donald Dewar was deeply embarrassed about being known as the "father of nation" when he was alive, but he did more than any other politician to create the Scottish Parliament and will always be associated with it.

His legacy will live on long after the row over the cost of Holyrood has been forgotten.

Dewar was a human being, who had strengths and weaknesses, but each of our 129 MSPs stands in his shoes and they have a lot to live up to.


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