Jim Wallace remembers Donald Dewar

This week, our Jim Wallace delivered the annual Donald Dewar Memorial Lecture in Glasgow. This lecture, held every year in memory of Scotland’s First First Minister, has previously been delivered by senior political figures such as Alistair Darling and Jack McConnell. Donald Dewar died suddenly in October 2000.

Jim served as Deputy First Minister to him and was Acting First Minister when Donald Dewar had heart surgery and in the immediate aftermath of his death while Labour selected a new leader. The Labour/Lib Dem coalition, over 8 years, delivered things like freedom of information legislation, free eye and dental checks, STV for local government, free personal care and land reform.

Jim’s lecture gave insights into the coalition negotiations back in 1999, Dewar’s style of Government and his hopes for the future.

He said:

The most liberating election campaign which I ever fought was the first election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. To a greater or lesser extent, all the general elections in which I’d been a candidate, had been fought against a backdrop of an ongoing constitutional debate about Scotland’s future. By 1999, we had a Parliament, endorsed overwhelmingly in the 1997 referendum; so now we could debate what the Parliament was going to do.

“With so many challenges today facing our NHS, our education system, our environment, transport links to islands and mainland destinations, in local government and not least in advancing Donald Dewar’s great passion for a more socially just Scotland, wouldn’t it be a refreshing change to think that these would be the issues which should again dominate the Parliament’s agenda.

“In that speech on 1st July, almost a quarter of a century ago, Donald also said,

“We are fallible. We will make mistakes. But we will never lose sight of what brought us here: the striving to do right by the people of Scotland; to respect their priorities; to better their lot; and to contribute to the commonweal.”

“It takes a special politician with great character to admit to fallibility and the possibility of mistakes. But at least they would be our mistakes. I can’t imagine him having the knee-jerk response always to blame Westminster. But compared to many countries with devolved powers, the competences of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Ministers are extensive – more extensive today than they were in 1999. So, wouldn’t a fitting tribute to the legacy of Donald Dewar be for today’s Scottish Parliamentarians to resolve again to focus on using these powers – to better the lot of the people of Scotland, and to contribute to the common weal.

The full text of Jim’s speech is below:

 

I can still remember the Scottish Cabinet meeting in Bute House, on the morning of 10th October 2000. From the chair, Donald Dewar asked me to explain a legal issue arising out of a paper I’d presented on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. When I finished, he rolled his eyes upwards – a sign of evident incomprehension as to what I’d just said – and invited the Lord Advocate to try and explain better. His attempt was similarly dismissed.

That meeting was to be the last time I saw Donald Dewar.

I went off to address a gathering to mark the 50th anniversary of the Law Society of Scotland, and on my return to St Andrew’s House, the doorman informed me that the doctor was with the First Minister, and an ambulance was expected soon. When I reached my private office, I was told that the FM had felt unwell after a fall, and because of his recent major surgery, no chances were being taken. As a doctor and some of his private office were with him, I decided not to go in and add to the enquirers after his health. And oh so sadly, I was never to see him again.

I recall that in the days and weeks following Donald’s death, there was some political analysis as to whether the fledgling Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition could survive, given the belief that the long-standing friendship between Donald and me was pivotal to its success. In fact, although Donald and I had been acquainted for twenty years or so, our political and personal friendship only really started after Labour won the 1997 election; and then matured during the months of partnership government.

During our time in the Commons, I was able to observe at close quarters his renowned debating skills and marvelled at how well the Hansard reporters coped with his quick-fire delivery and such wonderful Scottish expressions such as ‘Get down on your hunkers.’

After Labour’s election victory in 1997, Donald, as the newly appointed Secretary of State, set about preparing the White Paper on Scotland’s Parliament. Early on, he invited me to the Scottish Office in Dover House to reassure me that he would be faithful to the proposals agreed in the Scottish Constitutional Convention, subject to two important changes: there would be a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster and that the scheme would proceed on the basis that everything would be devolved unless expressly reserved. As these were points which Scottish Liberal  Democratas had unsuccessfully argued for in the Convention, he knew that I would have no difficulty with the changes.

In the referendum campaign which followed, there was close collaboration; and once a successful referendum outcome had been achieved, the next milestone was the publication of the Scotland Bill and the ensuing legislative process. When I learned the date of the publication of the Scotland Bill, just before the start of the 1997 Christmas recess, I contacted Donald to apologise that I couldn’t be there as my flights for a family Christmas break in New Zealand had already been booked. He asked me to go and see him and handed me a copy of the 16th or possibly 17th draft of the Bill for my holiday reading, with the caveat that bits could change before the final final draft. Albeit it added to the weight of my hand luggage, I appreciated the gesture as a mark of trust.

Many Parliamentary hours were then spent on debating the Bill and amendments to it. I moved an amendment to remove abortion from the list of reserved matters, arguing that as both health and criminal justice were devolved, it made no sense not to devolve abortion. Donald strongly contested the amendment and won the day in the division lobbies. But as we left the chamber he told me how relieved he had been to find that I hadn’t done sufficient homework to find his speech on the 1978 Bill, when he had argued for a similar amendment.

The passage of the Scotland Act 1998, with its iconic section 1: “There shall be a Scottish Parliament” words engraved on the Mace which Queen Elizabeth presented to the Parliament at its opening, must surely rank as one of Donald’s great achievements. Indeed it had been at the initial publication of the Bill when Donald momentously said “There shall be a Scottish Parliament – I like that” A clear expression of his enthusiasm and commitment to delivering the Parliament.

But he would have been the first to recognise that publishing and passing the legislation was just a beginning. There was now an election to be fought.

Whilst the media and, or so we’re told, the public love leadership debates during election campaigns, I’ve experienced enough of them to know that the challenge is not to make a mistake. That can lead to dull, defensive exchanges. The 1999 Scottish election campaign was no real exception. However, in the final debate from the Usher Hall, two days before polling, I was resolute in defence of my party’s manifesto commitment to abolish student tuition fees. As we came off stage, Donald, somewhat tetchily, came up to me and said that I may just have ruined any chance of us working together post-election. I don’t recall being unduly knocked off my stride or determination, reflecting that the other side of election day was a different country.

I spent polling day, May 6th, in my Orkney constituency, and by the time my result was declared, it was evident that the overall outcome would be much as the commentators had predicted – Labour as the largest party, but well short of an overall majority, thanks to the proportional electoral system; but with sufficient Liberal Democrat MSPs to give a Labour-Lib Dem coalition a majority. Without much, if any, sleep, I flew to Edinburgh and held a press conference, where I reiterated the tried and tested words of the campaign – in the event of no party having a majority, we would initially seek an agreement with the largest party to see if we could form a coalition.

Since the possibility of a hung Parliament at Westminster in 1992, Liberal Democrats had tried to work out a game plan. One piece of advice was not to be the supplicant. Let the other party make the first move. On the afternoon of Friday 7th May, possibly earlier than I was expecting, Donald phoned me and offered a coalition with two Liberal Democrat Ministers holding two full Cabinet positions. Little or nothing was said about a policy programme. The impression I formed was that Donald was making a genuine offer, but in reality it was for two Liberal Democrats to join a Labour Cabinet. I indicated to him that there would need to be an agreed policy basis for us to join a coalition government. This seemed to take him by surprise.

Nevertheless, he suggested that we should meet the following day in Bute House (entering by the back door). In the meantime, Donald had written out 4 sides of A4 for a possible policy deal. On the Lib Dem side, I had commissioned David Laws to distil a possible policy programme from our manifesto, and my new Scottish Parliamentary colleagues agreed the 28-page policy document when we met on the Saturday morning after the election. In the event, that formed the basis for the negotiations which then ensued.

We arranged for small groups from both parties going through the manifestos and identifying areas of common ground. Where there was divergence, these were put in square brackets to be resolved by the principal negotiating teams. I recall one meeting where Donald alighted on a particular policy on which there was no concurrence and said, “What Liberal nonsense is this?” To which I replied, “I think you’ll find that comes from the Labour manifesto.” He laughed wholeheartedly.

Having some sort of agreement on contentious issues such as Skye bridge tolls and beef on the bone, the outstanding point of dispute was student tuition fees and support. Different formulae were tried to no avail. Later on the Wednesday evening, when it looked as though we had reached an impasse, it was agreed that Donald and I should meet alone. I said that I thought we had given it our best shots, but it wasn’t to be. In the event, we agreed to set up a committee of inquiry, with Donald accepting that collective responsibility would not apply to this issue and so each party could put its own proposals to the inquiry.

With the logjam broken and some ‘i’s dotted and ‘t’ s crossed, we able to agree to support Donald’s nomination as First Minister and on Friday 14th, in the National Museum of Scotland, Donald and I signed the Partnership for Government.

A postscript to the tuition fee arrangement was that No.10 was getting anxious as to what we might come up with, so Tony Blair asked Donald and I to meet him. I insisted on being accompanied by my newly elected party leader, Charles Kennedy. It became clear that the Prime Minister could see our direction of travel and do little about it. Indeed, the following day, during the inaugural meeting of the British-Irish Council, Tony Blair said to me, “I hadn’t fully realised just how well you and Donald work together.”

The sixteen months of our partnership in government were fulfilling, but not without its challenges.

Crucially there was a bond of trust between us as First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I was mindful that even with a large majority in the House of Commons, Donald delivered on the Constitutional Convention agreement for the Parliament. There can’t be many examples in political history where a party with a commanding majority willingly surrenders the likelihood of outright political power as the Labour Party did when it legislated for a Parliament elected by proportional representation. Donald honoured the commitment.

In turn, at a very early stage in our administration, Donald took me aside and reminded me that as Justice Minister, I had ministerial responsibility for the 2001 census. However, he confided that the Prime Minister had earmarked the Thursday after Census Day 2001 for the next general election. What did I think about the potential clash of dates? I valued the fact that he could trust me, still an opposition MP at Westminster, with the PM’s thinking on an election date.

And he was reconciled to the likelihood that as Justice Minister, I would want to bring in a more liberal freedom of information regime in Scotland than the one being taken forward at Westminster. He tested the proposals vigorously, but he undoubtedly recognised the importance of transparency in his administration.

One of the challenges we faced at an early stage was the fall-out from the release of Mr Noel Ruddle a patient in the State Hospital at Carstairs, who had been responsible for killing his neighbour. I remember receiving a phone call from Donald on a Sunday evening to give me a ‘heads-up’ on the decision to be handed down the following day in Lanark Sheriff Court. In the media whirlwind which followed, he was always supportive, as we wrestled to find a legislative solution which might apply to any future case and which ultimately we did.  

There were other aspects of Donald’s style and beliefs which helped to strengthen our working relationship during these months of government.

Donald had a very genuine belief in cabinet government. Early on, he indicated his disappointment with the perfunctory nature of discussions he’d experienced around the UK Cabinet table and expressed a wish to see more open discussion in the Scottish Cabinet. This encouraged good debate which rarely ever split on party lines. He allowed individual ministers an opportunity to offer views which he would then test rigorously and challenge from the chair. This was important when leading a coalition government, for although it would almost certainly have been the same if he had led a Labour-only government, in the context of a coalition it allowed the views of Ross Finnie and myself to be considered alongside everyone else’s, thus limiting the possibility of party tribalism. Indeed, however passionately committed Donald was to the Labour Party, he was never tribal in his politics. He respected others’ views and whilst he liked debate and argument, he rejected bitterness and strife. I think he would have been appalled to read some of the postings on social media today which masquerade as political debate but are more like bitter point-scoring.

That’s not to say that he didn’t have a sharp and sometimes pointed wit.

In the summer of 1999 his friends Baroness Meta Ramsay, Lord Jimmy Gordon and Lady Gordon persuaded Donald to take a holiday, so they all ventured on a visit to Orkney and Shetland. When in Orkney, Donald invited Rosie and me to join them for a meal at a first-class restaurant, the Creel, in St Margaret’s Hope. During the meal, just as he was being served by a lady, whom he’d worked out was also the proprietor, he turned to me and said, “You do have some very nice sea-side cafes in your constituency.”

I have already mentioned how much I came to value his trust and confidence, but I was not prepared for the meeting I had with him in St Andrew’s House just before Easter 2000. He told me about his health difficulties; that he had to go into hospital for tests and most likely would require heart surgery. He was likely to be away for three months and expected me to mind the shop in his absence. I suddenly realised the enormity of what he was saying and asking me to do. I said to him, “I don’t recall this being in the script when I joined up.” To which he tartly replied, “Deputies deputise.”

Three or four weeks later he told me he would be entering hospital the following weekend for his operation. His parting words were “Enjoy yourself.”

After his return to work in the summer of 2000, it was very much back to business as usual, although the truck drivers’ protests over higher fuel duty and the ensuing fuel shortage and knock on effects in September 2000 exercised him greatly.

Donald was a thoroughly honest, decent and loyal man. It was a privilege to work with him at such a pivotal time in Scotland’s history.

Donald loved Scotland and the public response on his death showed just how much the people of Scotland revered and respected him.

In the tributes which poured in after his death, many referred to and quoted from the most memorable speech which he gave at the Opening of the Parliament on 1st July 1999.

Again he quoted section 1 of the Scotland Act “There shall be a Scottish Parliament” now engraved on the Mace

And there were so many other memorable and poignant phrases in that speech.  Today, I particularly recall the words,

“A Scottish Parliament. Not an end: a means to greater ends.”

It was and is a vision which I share.

The most liberating election campaign which I ever fought was the first election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. To a greater or lesser extent, all the general elections in which I’d been a candidate, had been fought against a backdrop of an ongoing constitutional debate about Scotland’s future. By 1999, we had a Parliament, endorsed overwhelmingly in the 1997 referendum; so now we could debate what the Parliament was going to do.

With so many challenges today facing our NHS, our education system, our environment, transport links to islands and mainland destinations, in local government and not least in advancing Donald’s Dewar great passion for a more socially just Scotland, wouldn’t it be a refreshing change to think that these would be the issues which should again dominate the Parliament’s agenda.

In that speech on 1st July, almost a quarter of a century ago, Donald also said,

“We are fallible. We will make mistakes. But we will never lose sight of what brought us here: the striving to do right by the people of Scotland; to respect their priorities; to better their lot; and to contribute to the commonweal.”

It takes a special politician with great character to admit to fallibility and the possibility of mistakes. But at least they would be our mistakes. I can’t imagine him having the knee-jerk response always to blame Westminster. But compared to many countries with devolved powers, the competences of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Ministers are extensive – more extensive today than they were in 1999. So, wouldn’t a fitting tribute to the legacy of Donald Dewar be for today’s Scottish Parliamentarians to resolve again to focus on using these powers – to better the lot of the people of Scotland, and to contribute to the common weal.

 

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5 Comments

  • Mary Fulton 11th Feb '24 - 1:27pm

    Thanks for posting this. Those were exciting times with political leaders of real stature and fundamental decency. It is interesting that the leaders of the 4 main parties at the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections were three lawyers and an economist – today 2 of the 4 leaders did politics degrees before becoming political operatives, 1 is the son of a former MP and one is noted for being a football assistant referee.

  • @ Geoffrey Payne Only in the interest of accuracy Geoffrey, BBC News, 25th March, 2011

    “As he walked off stage at an event with David Cameron early in the year, Nick Clegg fell victim to the worst of modern political pitfalls – the open microphone. “If we keep doing this, we won’t find anything to bloody disagree on in the bloody TV debate,” the audience heard him say to the prime minister”.

  • David Raw, Sadly, as was shown by everything from NHS ‘reorganisation’ to the bedroom tax, he actually meant it..

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