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Wednesday, 11 October, 2000, 19:30 GMT 20:30 UK
Blair: My friend Donald
Tony Blair with Donald Dewar
Tony Blair with Donald Dewar in happier times
By Prime Minister Tony Blair


The sudden death of Donald Dewar has left a deep sense of loss.

He was, indeed, the father of his nation and a huge figure in UK politics.

A fond father to his children, Ian and Marion. A trusted colleague and, for me and many others, an extraordinary friend.

Scotland has lost its leader and its guiding hand. It has lost a great man, too. I can imagine how Donald - whose modesty was legendary - would react to these words and all the other tributes of the last 24 hours but they are nevertheless true.

His qualities of honesty, integrity, wisdom and, perhaps most of all, decency made him a successful and loved politician and an honour to know.

He was not born into a Labour family but very early on, his values of compassion and social justice led him to the Labour Party.

A fighter

He stuck with it through thick and thin and never wavered in his belief that Labour was the political force which would create a stronger, fairer and more just society.

Donald was a fighter. He lost his Aberdeen South seat in 1970 but came back through the tough Garscadden by-election which stemmed the nationalist tide in 1978. He continued to represent the constituency with pride.

For someone of Donald's talents, it was tragic that he should spend so much of his Parliamentary career in opposition. But he used his time well.

It was Donald, with his lifelong friend John Smith, who built the case for a Scottish Parliament during Labour's years outside government.

Like John, he also became a master of the House of Commons. Few commanded the chamber like him.

After the General Election three years ago, it was Donald who drove through the devolution programme. He shaped the White Paper, drove through the Scotland Act and led the referendum campaign from the front.

But history will not just show that Donald Dewar delivered the Scottish Parliament. It will also show that, through his personality, wisdom and leadership, he laid the foundations which will make it a success for the people of Scotland.

His desire for a Scottish Parliament was not borne out of devotion to the niceties of constitutional theory but because he believed it to be a power for good for Scotland and would forge a new and better relationship with the rest of the UK.

Wise advice

He was the only man to be first minister. It felt right and it was right. The opening day of the Scottish Parliament was, he said, the greatest day of his life.

His brilliant speech that day did the historic occasion justice.

To this taxing job of first minister, he brought his own special blend of political and personal skills. I had more reason than most to know, and be grateful, for his qualities.

He was a valued colleague and a special friend, warm and loyal, whose advice was unfailingly wise and was sweetened by his irreverent and self-deprecating humour. None of us were exempt from his wit, and we loved him for it.

Some were surprised when he became Labour chief whip at Westminster. But he was an outstanding success, winning the respect of MPs from all parts of the Labour party and all parties in the House.

In that post, he also played a key role in Labour's election victory and brought his outstanding campaigning skills to an audience throughout the UK.

Donald, of course, was in some ways an old-fashioned politician. He had no time for the modern obsession with personality or appearance.

He genuinely didn't care how he looked and couldn't understand why anyone else did. He had to be dragged out complaining by his devoted staff to buy a new coat, shoes or suits.

Respect

He numbered many journalists among his friends but for the media in general, his view was that they would have to take him as they found him.

And whatever the political problems of the day, for that, he won people's affection and respect.

I was with Donald in Scotland, for what has proved the final time, just a few weeks ago. He seemed to be recovering well from his heart operation although, as ever, it was difficult to prise out such personal information from him.

Among the engagements we shared in a busy day was a business lunch in Glasgow. As we left, we went over together to talk to a sizeable crowd which had gathered outside.

What left its mark on me - as it always did when I visited Scotland in his company - was the genuine warmth of his reception and his surprise and embarrassment that so many people wanted to shake his hand.

It was typical of the bond between him and the people of Scotland. Even when times were difficult, they recognised that Donald was always fighting for them.

Vacuum

In an age where the public are cynical about politics, Donald stood out. It was, in some ways, his modesty and down-to earth nature which marked him out as a politician of such stature.

He transcended party politics, winning the respect and affection of those of all political persuasion and none.

Among his closest friends were some of the most senior politicians of other parties who will feel his loss as deeply as his many friends in the Labour Party.

Donald was a good friend. A fine politician. A tremendous servant of our party and our country.

His passing will leave a vacuum in our national life and the lives of many people which will be difficult to fill.

He was, indeed, a thoroughly decent man.


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