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Dewar, Donald Campbellfree

  • Iain McLean

Donald Campbell Dewar (1937–2000)

by Michael Powell, 1998

Dewar, Donald Campbell (1937–2000), first minister of Scotland, was born on 21 August 1937 at 194 Renfrew Street, Glasgow, the only child of Dr Alisdair Campbell Dewar, a consultant dermatologist, and his wife, Mary Howat, née Bennett.


Dewar's parents were both unwell soon after his birth—his father had tuberculosis and spent long periods in a sanatorium, and his mother suffered a brain tumour—so he had a lonely and self-reliant life from a very early age. From the time he was two he was sent to preparatory schools, first in Perthshire, then in Hawick, where, as he said, 'I was in care—organised by my parents.' Throughout his life his accent reflected the borders (with maybe a hint of his first constituency in Aberdeen) and not his native Glasgow. When he was nine he went to Moss Park primary school in Glasgow, and at the age of ten to Glasgow Academy. At both schools he felt lonely and unloved; at Glasgow Academy he starred neither at studies nor at sport. His school reports were littered with faint praise, such as 'a good worker … sound … works hard'. He stayed on an extra year to retake his higher leaving certificate, and at the second attempt obtained good enough grades to proceed to Glasgow University. On his leaving record, Glasgow Academy listed his 'probable occupation or profession' as '??'.

Dewar started to blossom only on arriving at Glasgow University to study history in 1957. He graduated MA with honours in 1961, then took a second degree in law, and graduated with a second-class LLB in 1964. On 20 July of the latter year he married a fellow Glasgow student, six years his junior, Alison Mary, daughter of Dr James Shaw McNair, a medical practitioner, and his wife, Agnes McCrae Anthony, née Murray. They had a daughter, Marion, and a son, Ian.

Humanities students in the old Scottish universities had a distinctive culture in the 1950s. Maintenance grants from the Scottish education department were not tenable in English universities. Few Scottish students, except the children of wealthy parents and those educated in public schools, went to university outside Scotland. Their teachers were probably themselves Scots or Ulstermen, educated in the same Scottish universities a generation before. This reinforced the climate of cultural nationalism that was probably strongest in law. Law students, of course, studied Scots law, whose teachers assert its technical superiority to English law. This period in Dewar's life solidified his own intense cultural (but never political) nationalism, which he may have imbibed from his mother, who was the secretary of the Scottish Culture Society. Like Sir Walter Scott, he combined cultural nationalism with fierce opposition to Scottish independence. Throughout his life he retained an intense interest in Scottish history and culture. He had an expert knowledge of the highland clearances, of the Disruption of the Church of Scotland, and of the paintings of the Scottish colourists. He rarely left Scotland except when national business took him to London. When, in later life, he had to go abroad as shadow Scottish secretary, his aides discovered that he did not possess a passport.

Glasgow University, in Dewar's time, was at the peak of its reputation for student debating. In the rough house of the Glasgow University men's union, Dewar learned the debating skills that friend and foe came to admire in his political career. He also formed the close political friendships across party divides that stayed with him throughout his life. He succeeded John Smith (later leader of the Labour Party) as chairman of the university Labour Club and president of the union; he and Smith won The Scotsman debating trophy in 1961. Other close associates from university days were the Liberal politician Menzies Campbell and the Conservative lawyer Ross Harper. Dewar's own political commitment was Scottish Gaitskellite. On the right wing of the Labour Party, he was never tempted to join the Social Democrat breakaway in 1981, perhaps because the breakaways were weaker in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.

In and out of parliament

On leaving university, Dewar became a solicitor, though he also pursued a political career, having in 1962 been selected as Labour candidate for Aberdeen South. In 1964 he was defeated by the sitting Conservative, Lady Tweedsmuir, the daughter-in-law of John Buchan; she had told him that he would not 'need to interrupt his studies' (The Scotsman, 12 Oct 2000). Nevertheless, in 1966 he won the seat, defeating Lady Tweedsmuir by 1799 votes. In the parliament of 1966–70 he served on the public accounts committee (a highly unusual posting for a first-term MP) and from 1967 to 1969 was parliamentary private secretary to Anthony Crosland, president of the Board of Trade, although he and Crosland did not become close. Roy Jenkins unsuccessfully proposed him for junior ministerial office in April 1968. However, in the general election of 1970 he lost his seat.

1970 was Dewar's annus horribilis, since in that year he also lost his wife, who left him for a life in London with another Scottish Labour lawyer, and formerly a friend of Dewar, Alexander (Derry) Irvine (later the patron of Tony Blair and, as Lord Irvine of Lairg, lord chancellor in the Labour governments of 1997 and 2001). They were divorced in 1973. Although he never talked about it, this was a shattering blow to Dewar. He never remarried, and lived alone for the rest of his life in the former matrimonial home in Cleveden Crescent, Glasgow. He would call, unannounced, on friends, who always enjoyed entertaining him. Menzies Campbell and his wife, Elspeth, regularly invited him for Christmas dinner until he said that he would rather eat fish fingers at home. Also in 1970 Dewar started to suffer the back trouble that left him stooped and in pain in later life.

Dewar's political allies assumed that he would soon return to parliament. However, he was not selected for a Scottish Labour-held seat until 1978, probably because his opinions were too right-wing for selection committees; possibly also because he was unsympathetic to the bitterly anti-devolutionist leadership of Willie Ross, secretary of state for Scotland in 1964–70 and 1974–6. After losing his seat he took the new quasi-judicial post of reporter to a children's panel. These panels were intended to be tribunals, less adversarial than traditional courts, for dealing with juvenile offenders. Friends attributed Dewar's choice of this career to his own disturbed and lonely childhood. He also hosted a political discussion programme on Radio Clyde called Clyde Comment. In the early 1970s he moved into private practice at the instigation of his university friend Ross Harper, becoming a partner in Harper's firm, Ross Harper Murphy, in 1975. Although his personal disorganization tried his colleagues sorely, he remained popular for his integrity and energizing pessimism.

Return to parliament

The Scottish National Party (SNP) did well in the two general elections of 1974. In October of that year they won eleven seats and obtained 30 per cent of the Scottish vote. The Conservatives, with fewer votes, won more seats; and Labour retained its customary majority of the seats on a minority of the vote. Nevertheless, it was clear to all parties that the SNP was very close to a tipping point. If its vote were to rise to 35 per cent or beyond, it would tip suddenly from underrepresentation in seats to overrepresentation, and win more than half the seats in Scotland. It had announced that it would take this as its cue for starting independence negotiations. The Labour Party, however strong or weak its commitment to the union of the United Kingdom, could not tolerate such a threat to its own base. Not only the Labour government of October 1974, but most Labour governments, depended on Scottish Labour seats for their majorities. Therefore, something had to be done about Scottish devolution. However, the 1974–9 government's efforts were incompetent. It was common knowledge that ministers were proposing a Scotland and Wales Bill (later split into separate bills after the first had been defeated in an English back-bench revolt), not for its own sake but in order to preserve the UK government's majority. John Smith was the only minister who believed in it.

Early in 1978 the death of the sitting member, Willie Small, forced a by-election in Glasgow Garscadden, a constituency dominated by the huge and multiply deprived Drumchapel estate in the north-west of the city. Dewar won the Labour nomination, but everyone, including Dewar himself, expected the SNP to gain the seat. Instead, he won with a majority of 4552 over the nationalists. Some instant pundits attributed the upset to the fact that the SNP candidate, Keith Bovey, was an active supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in a constituency where the naval shipyards were one of the largest employers. Dewar retained the seat (later renamed Anniesland) for the rest of his life. The SNP faded fast after the Garscadden by-election. At the general election of 1979 they were reduced to two seats. The incoming prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, abandoned Scottish devolution, and the issue disappeared from the UK agenda for eighteen years. Even in Scotland it did not resurface until the late 1980s.

Dewar became an opposition Scottish spokesman in 1980 and shadow secretary of state for Scotland in 1983. He joined the shadow cabinet in 1984. He remained shadow secretary of state for Scotland until his friend John Smith became Labour leader in 1992. Smith made Dewar shadow secretary of state for social security, a post he retained after Smith's death in 1994 until Tony Blair made him Labour chief whip in 1996.

Dewar was highly effective in both shadow secretary of state posts. Although he was a solicitor, not an advocate, his personal disorganization had forced on him the advocate's skill of mastering a very complex brief in a very short time. His university debating skills made him one of the few MPs who could actually debate, with wit and savagery. As shadow secretary of state for Scotland, he had an ambiguous triumph in getting some clauses deleted from the Conservative government's Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill in 1990. 'The Law Society', an unselfconscious tribute stated, 'was forever grateful to Donald Dewar for assisting in the deletion of many of the worst parts of the Act [sic]—including conveyancing by banks and building societies' (Scots Law Times). As shadow social security secretary, he created a party commission on social justice that began the transition from old to new Labour in that policy area. As chief whip, his absent-minded professorial manner hid an efficient, not to say ruthless, operation, despite which he made no lasting enemies.


Dewar supported devolution to Scotland within the United Kingdom throughout his political career. In the 1960s and 1970s this was unfashionable for a Labour politician. Most of his contemporaries were firm unionists for two reasons, one good and one bad. The good reason was that, if Labour was committed to equality, then that implied redistributing resources from the rich, wherever they were, to the poor, wherever they were. Devolution could cut across this. Labour's most fervent egalitarian, Aneurin Bevan, opposed devolution for this reason, and so did his disciple Neil Kinnock until a late conversion as Labour leader. (Unsurprisingly, relations between Dewar and Kinnock were sometimes strained.) The bad reason was that Labour normally needed the votes of its Welsh and Scottish MPs to govern England. The bad came to undermine the good. It blunted Dewar's attack on legislation that Conservative governments imposed on Scotland while holding very few seats there. Although all the opposition parties denounced the Law Reform Bill in 1990 and, even more, the bill to impose the poll tax on Scotland in 1987, Dewar could not play the legitimacy card. It would give hostages both to the Scottish nationalists, who decried what they called the ‘feeble fifty’ Scottish Labour MPs, and to the Conservatives, who could point out that, although the Conservative government held a minority of seats in Scotland, most Labour governments also held a minority of seats in England, and had not hesitated to pass English legislation with Scottish votes.

Unionist politicians were terrified at the prospect of Scottish independence, federalism, or even devolution—Conservatives because they loved the union in and of itself, Labour politicians because of the threat to their capacity to govern England. Therefore, since at least 1918 and perhaps since 1886, they bought off Scottish sentiment by allowing higher public spending per head there. Throughout Dewar's political career, public spending per head in Scotland was higher than in the deprived regions of England. Devolution impaired equality, not because the devolved regions got less, but because they got more, than comparable regions elsewhere in the UK. This was one anomaly that Dewar did not tackle.

The devolution bills of the 1970s had enumerated powers that were to go to the devolved assemblies; the list was bitterly contested between the Scottish and Welsh offices and the ‘English’ departments, which won most of the battles. Most lawyers believe that, if they had not been abandoned, the Scotland and Wales Acts of 1978 would have been unworkable because of constant disputes about the powers of the devolved and Westminster administrations. To prevent a repetition, Dewar was one of those who initiated the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1989. The convention brought together the Labour and Liberal parties, some churches, and other civil society organizations; its chairman was an Episcopalian clergyman, Canon Kenyon Wright. The SNP and Conservatives, for opposite reasons, did not take part. The convention was, of course, self-appointed, but it enabled Smith and Dewar to insist that devolution was, in Smith's phrase, 'the settled will of the Scottish people'.

On Labour's victory in the general election of 1997 Dewar became secretary of state for Scotland. He led the referendum campaign for a double yes, which in September 1997 legitimized both a Scottish parliament and its power to vary tax rates, both by substantial majorities. He largely wrote, and piloted through the Commons, the Scotland Bill. Launching the bill in December 1997, he read its opening words: '“There shall be a Scottish Parliament” [slight pause]. I like that' (The Scotsman, 12 Oct 2000). The bill duly became the Scotland Act of 1998. As soon as he announced that he would run for the Scottish parliament created by that act, it was assumed on all sides that Dewar would be the first Labour leader and (assuming, as everyone did, that Labour became the largest party) the first first minister of Scotland. So it came to pass.

The arrangements proposed by the Scottish Constitutional Convention were copied with few alterations into the Scotland Act. Whereas the bills of the 1970s had provided a list of devolved powers reluctantly conceded by the Cabinet Office, the convention and the act of 1998 provided a list of powers reserved to Westminster, proposed and defended by Dewar. In cabinet committee bargaining with his old adversary Lord Irvine, who (like English ministers in the 1970s) wanted to restrict the powers of the Scottish parliament, Dewar won many of his battles. He could use the 'settled will of the Scottish people' as his bargaining counter.

One arrangement carried over from the convention to the act provided for proportional representation in the Scottish parliament. As Labour would probably have easily won an outright majority of its seats on a minority vote had the Westminster system applied there, Dewar called this 'the best example of charitable giving this century in politics' (Parliamentary Debates, vol. 312, 6 May 1998, col. 803). However, it guaranteed the legitimacy of the Scottish parliament and made it harder for the SNP to gain a majority in it. The first devolved administration was, as everybody had expected, a coalition between the two constitutional convention parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Likewise, the double referendum was the result of tortuous negotiation through bad-tempered Labour committees, and it attracted some derision when it was proposed. In retrospect, though, it was another triumph for Dewar, because it sealed the legitimacy of the Scottish parliament's power to tax.

On becoming first minister of Scotland in May 1999, Dewar wrote, 'The people of Scotland rightly have high hopes and expectations for their Parliament; they already feel a sense of ownership and of connection to it and we must not let them down.' But within less than a year the euphoria had faded, as Dewar became embroiled in both policy and personality disputes, including a scandal surrounding the behaviour of two special advisers, and another derived from the escalating costs of the new Scottish parliament building. He seemed less successful as first minister than he had been as father of the nation (the title instantly bestowed by all the obituaries).

In April 2000 Dewar was diagnosed as suffering from heart trouble. He retired temporarily in order to undergo surgery to repair a damaged aortic valve. However, he resumed office too soon that summer, and he suffered a brain haemorrhage after a fall outside his official residence on 10 October 2000; he died in the Western General Hospital, Edinburgh, on 11 October. He was cremated at Clydebank on 18 October and his ashes scattered at Lochgilphead in Argyll. Notorious for his frugal lifestyle, he reserved one last surprise for his will, which revealed that he had left over £2 million. Most of this was in inherited equities and three houses, but it also reflected his acute tastes in art. A storm over his alleged hypocrisy in holding shares in companies privatized by Conservative governments quickly subsided when it became clear that the shares had been held in a blind trust, and the property comprised one inherited house, the former matrimonial home, and a flat to which he had been intending to move after his convalescence.

A modest and self-deprecating man, Dewar was noted for his acerbic wit and generally gloomy features. 'I'm not dour and horrid', he once protested, 'but people do say that I am the most melancholic man in politics. I can usually find some reason to take a very dim view of the prospects' (The Times, 12 Oct 2000). He was a very hard worker, and many contemporaries believed that he literally worked himself to death for his beloved country. Nevertheless, the heartfelt tributes that poured out at his death showed that he had triumphantly secured the legitimacy of the Scottish parliament and had wrong-footed both of the parties that had stayed out of its creation, the SNP and the Conservatives. They clambered on board, but the SNP could not, in Dewar's lifetime, use the parliament as their lever to extract more concessions from the English, and Dewar's wrong-footing of them may have contributed to their poor performance in the general election of 2001. Indeed, at the time of Dewar's death it seemed likely that, if the arrangements were to unravel, it would probably be from England rather than from Scotland. The existence of the Scottish parliament forced the issues of regional taxing and spending into the open as never before. But Dewar, described at his death as 'a throwback to the Scottish Enlightenment' (The Scotsman, 12 Oct 2000), would not have objected to that.


  • T. Dalyell, The Independent (12 Oct 2000)
  • The Times (12 Oct 2000)
  • E. MacAskill and B. Wilson, The Guardian (12 Oct 2000)
  • The Scotsman (12 Oct 2000)
  • Daily Telegraph (12 Oct 2000)
  • Financial Times (12 Oct 2000)
  • Scots Law Times (27 Oct 2000)
  • Parliamentary debates, Commons, 6th ser.
  • Glasgow Academy Chronicle (1950–57)
  • Glasgow University Guardian (1957–64)
  • Glasgow University Magazine (1957–64)
  • R. H. S. Crossman, The diaries of a cabinet minister, 3 (1977)
  • A guide to the Scottish parliament, Centre for Scottish Public Policy (1999)
  • private information (2004)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • NA Scot., departmental records
  • TNA: PRO, departmental records
  • U. Glas., Archives and Business Records Centre, papers relating to his student career


  • M. Clarke, group portrait, photograph, 1978 (Devolution ?), Hult. Arch.
  • group portrait, photograph, 1978, Hult. Arch.
  • M. Powell, photograph, 1998, News International Syndication, London [see illus.]
  • photographs, repro. in The Scotsman

Wealth at Death

£2,060,456.40: confirmation, 2001, CCI