Profile: Donald Dewar

By Massie, Allan | New Statesman (1996), July 24, 1998 | Go to article overview

Profile: Donald Dewar


Massie, Allan, New Statesman (1996)


He was almost the Scottish Mandela; now, even the image-makers can't help him

Alan Jones, the academic who coached the almost all-conquering 1984 Wallabies rugby team, was fond of encapsulating the ups and downs of sporting reputations in the phrase, "yesterday a rooster, today a feather duster". Donald Dewar, the now embattled Secretary of State for Scotland, might nod his head in melancholy agreement.

Last September, after the referendum on devolution, he was cock o' the north, king of the dunghill, the nearest thing to a Scottish Mandela we are ever likely to see. He was the Moses who had led the Children of Albion to within sight of the long-promised land of a Scottish Parliament. After the sojourn in the wilderness, Labour was making good its promise of home rule, and Dewar was its architect and inspiring spirit.

Today, with the SNP a dozen points ahead of Labour in the polls, and with more people declaring a preference for the Nationalist leader Alex Salmond than Dewar as Scotland's first minister, he is in deep trouble. In a leading article a couple of weeks ago, the Scotsman called for Tony Blair to switch Dewar and Robin Cook. This editorial was (I am assured) intended seriously, not ironically.

But the thought of Cook returning contentedly with the second Mrs Cook to Edinburgh - where his first wife, Margaret, is a far more prominent figure than she was when they were married - is almost as bizarre as the suggestion that Dewar, whose views on foreign travel fall not far short of those expressed by Nancy Mitford's Uncle Matthew ("abroad is utterly bloody"), and whose preferred holiday pastime is reading history and fiction in his Glasgow flat, would be happy as foreign secretary. But the argument that Dewar is incapable of stemming the Nationalist advance is not so bizarre, and the frequency with which it is advanced, even by those who proclaim their affection and admiration for the secretary of state, shows just how his reputation has slumped in nine months. Indeed, its decline has been as precipitous as was John Major's in 1992.

Indeed, even Dewar's sympathisers and friends have taken to comparing their man with Major: an honest, honourable and able politician being destroyed by the follies, misdemeanours and divisions of his own party.

No doubt Dewar can't properly be acquitted of responsibility for Labour's present plight in Scotland. He seems to have supposed that, apart from piloting the Scotland Bill through parliament, he was engaged in a holding operation only. Labour was so secure in its position in Scotland that there was little need to impress the electorate with its ability to govern. Indeed, constitutional matters apart, all else could properly be left to the Parliament itself; all that was now necessary was to keep things ticking over. This complacency resulted in the most able among younger Scottish Labour MPs, such as Helen Liddell and Alistair Darling, being given Treasury posts, while the Scottish Office team was lacklustre.

It may be, too, that Dewar lacks the ruthlessness required to deal promptly and efficiently with the succession of scandals that has beset Labour since it came to office. None of these scandals has been very serious in itself. The cumulative effect has been serious, however. Mohammed Sarwar in Govan, Tommy Graham in Renfrewshire, vicious infighting in Paisley and Glasgow councils, dismal incompetence, if not corruption, in North Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire: the list is long and together these affairs have tarnished Labour's reputation.

Dewar's response in every case has been seen to be inadequate. When he has talked tough, he has been unable to deliver. So Pat Lally is still Lord Provost of Glasgow and the party has abandoned its attempt to eject him from office. More than a year after he was suspended from the parliamentary party, no charges have been made to stick against Tommy Graham; Renfrewshire and Paisley still resemble bear-pits. …

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