BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK: Scotland
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Wednesday, 11 October, 2000, 13:44 GMT 14:44 UK
Dewar: Testing times in power
Donald Dewar
Donald Dewar: Ups and downs in power
By BBC News Online's Deirdre Kelly

In Donald Dewar's time as First Minister he was regularly thrust into the political boxing ring to defend his corner - and was not all been about fights over policy.

When it came to heated debates inside the new parliamentary chamber, Mr Dewar always showed himself to be a capable man.

He had an astute legal brain, fierce, fast and formidable debating skills and enjoyed squaring up to the opposition benches.

There have been plenty of heated debates

The political operator, who boasted a brilliant intellect and a long association and entrenched belief in the Labour Party, was thought able to tackle most things.

Mr Dewar developed a reputation as a tough man of politics when, during the latter years of Labour in opposition, he was chief whip at Westminster.

But once in power, Mr Dewar's position brought with it new challenges and fresh pressures.

Almost immediately he and his coalition team were embroiled in an alleged access to ministers scandal.

Steep learning curve

The so-called Lobbygate affair was the stuff of the politics of politics - it involved Scotland's leading public relations firm, the son of the Scottish secretary and the country's new finance minister.

During a quiet summer, the parliament's first embarrassment served newspaper columnists and political commentators well.

Although Mr Dewar's personal reputation remained intact, he realised the new Edinburgh power house, and all who were in it, was on a steep learning curve.

Donald Dewar
A politician of the old school
Nevertheless, he successfully jumped his first major hurdle and did what was necessary to set up Scotland's Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition.

It meant a Labour compromise over tuition fees, but it produced a new administration able to keep the Scottish National Party at arms length.

Wrangles over student finance were predictable but less expected was the bombshell which the repeal of Section 28 - the law which bans the promotion of homosexuality in schools - turned out to be.

The political fallout continues and is set to continue as the opponents of abolition - religious leaders, parents and Scotland's richest businessman, Brian Souter, plough on with their very vocal campaign.

Adviser sacked

Fights over the delivery of policy were one thing, but for the urbane and witty Mr Dewar, personal accusations and having to wash dirty linen in public were harder to handle.

The sacking of personal adviser John Rafferty was Mr Dewar's decision. He went after it was said he had misled the media over death threats allegedly made to Health Minister Susan Deacon in the debate over abortion.

Mr Rafferty denied making misleading statements - but Mr Dewar decided that his working relationship with his closest adviser had been undermined.

Soon after that, Labour MP George Galloway launched a fierce public attack on the first minister.

Politics was Mr Dewar's life
He complained Westminster MPs could suffer electoral damage from the "dog's breakfast" in Scotland presided over by Mr Dewar.

Mr Galloway predicted Mr Dewar could even be politically ousted before the year was through.

And Labour MP Ian Davidson took up where Mr Galloway left off. He said Mr Dewar's leadership had been "reminiscent of the worst days of the John Major government".

While Mr Dewar's own colleagues were throwing the insults, SNP leader Alex Salmond could afford to sit back and grin.

Old style politician

In a public relations-driven political world, "Dour Donald" may have found it hard to fit in.

He was a politician of the old style - talking in sound bites and partaking in election stunts came with difficulty.

The committed Labour politician celebrated his 63rd birthday in August.

And most working men of his age would have been planning for retirement, Mr Dewar was already in the midst of new projects.

But his colleagues believed, long before any health problems emerged, that, politically and personally, he would not make it to a second term.

Blow to Labour

Mr Dewar's first health scare, heart surgery, was undoubtedly an unsteadying piece of news for Mr Blair.

John Reid
John Reid: Son involved in Lobbygate affair
It represented yet another blow to Labour in London.

When the prime minister and his new administration took the devolution path they quickly found it was far from smooth, not only in Scotland, but in Wales and Northern Ireland as well.

Within a relatively short time, Mr Blair saw the sudden departure of his chosen one in Wales - Alun Michael, first secretary of the National Assembly for Wales.

And in Northern Ireland, more predictable political reasons led to the new assembly being disbanded.

MP since 1966

Then Mr Blair saw his right hand man north of the border in hospital having tests on his heart while a Liberal Democrat - Jim Wallace, Deputy First Minister - took charge.

But those who know Mr Dewar were well aware of his desire to return to work as soon as it was possible.

Work was the one thing which drove him on, particularly since events in the 1970s in his private life.

The Glasgow University-educated lawyer married Alison McNair in 1964 and they had two children.

But the couple divorced in 1973 when she left him for the now Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, a university friend of Mr Dewar's.

He never remarried and although close to his two children, he entered the Commons in 1966 and made politics his life.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Scotland stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Scotland stories