October 9, 2020 Media

Donald Dewar Memorial Lecture (First Delivered: 8 October 2020)

Donald Dewar Memorial Lecture (First Delivered: 8 October 2020)

Sunday marks the 20th Anniversary of the death of our first First Minister, Donald Dewar.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said that day Donald had been a “tremendous servant of our party and our country” and he reflected that “His passing will leave a vacuum in our national life and the lives of many people which will be difficult to fill.” This week we feel those sentiments as if it were yesterday.

He was a much loved friend across the political spectrum; a fighter for his constituents and for Scotland; a leader and a Parliamentarian who deserved and won respect, and a man whose company lit up many a dinner party or late night political discourse.

Thank you to the University of Glasgow, the Stevenson Trust for Citizenship, the Vice-Chancellor and all who have helped prepare for this event. The Stevenson Trust was established in 1921 with the financial support of Glasgow engineer and municipal socialist Sir Daniel Stevenson, a campaigner determined to improve the lives of those Glaswegian families living in the worst conditions, with a particular commitment to libraries and museums as instruments of social progress. The Trust aims to promote active citizenship at the local, national and international levels, and explore proposals that might improve society and governance. They are perfect hosts for this occasion.

The University of Glasgow had a lifelong relationship with Donald Dewar and I know many of his University friends are joining us this evening. His own education gave Donald an appreciation of the importance of education in liberating people from poverty, deprivation and ill health. This University of course has one former First Minister and the current First Minister to celebrate as graduates, and I am sure Sir Anton is very proud of that. Unfortunately, a young lad from the Isle of Arran who applied in 1976 was rejected without interview, a decision that led to my lifelong connection with the University of Stirling. If that admissions director had made a different decision then maybe you would have three First Ministers to boast about.

When I was asked to take up this great honour back in February, we imagined a full Bute Hall, a noisy reception, an opportunity to mix with old friends and new students, some lively face to face debate. Instead we meet in circumstances that would have been ‘beyond our ken’ even earlier this year. Conscious as I am that there will be those listening this evening who were not born when Donald Dewar served as First Minister, I will reflect on his life as well as commenting on where Scotland stands today. It will be a challenge to make such a moment reflect the importance of the memory, but I shall try my best.

The life of Donald Dewar

Donald Dewar was a giant of a man. Whether he was debating the detail of legislation in a parliamentary committee, carrying a plate of pakora around parties in our house in Stirling in the 1990s, centre stage with that glorious speech in the opening day of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood or laughing and joking and chewing the fat with friends and colleagues late into the evening, his presence filled every room and so his loss was felt everywhere.

Elected to Parliament as the member for South Aberdeen in 1966, he represented an eclectic variety of constituents from farming, tourism, manufacturing and the city’s public services. Between 1970 and 1978 he was out of Parliament but increasingly contributing to the big debates about the future of Scotland inside and outside the Labour Party. After his historic by-election victory in 1978 he spoke movingly in the House of Commons about his home city of Glasgow and his new Constituency, Glasgow Garscadden.

“Glasgow is my home. I was born and bred there. I am proud to be the representative in this House for Garscadden. It is not an area which has scenery or architecture about which one can wax lyrical, but since I have become associated with the constituency I have been enormously impressed by its social cohesion and by the willingness to face up to the real difficulties that do exist.

There are an enormous number of good things coming out of Garscadden—there is a basis upon which we can build successfully in the years ahead.”

He quickly became established as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and the key voice in the land calling for Scottish devolution while opposing the economic policies of the Thatcher Government. Following Labour’s third election defeat in 1987, with 50 new Scottish Labour MPs to lead, he took the Scottish Labour Party into the Scottish Constitutional Convention, recognising that the time was right for cross party collaboration to deliver a Parliament for Scotland, an autonomous legislature within the UK.

In 1997 he was the automatic choice of Prime Minister Tony Blair to deliver Labour’s promise to honour the Convention scheme, win a referendum and create the Parliament itself. And then of course, after winning the referendum and successfully steering the 1998 Scotland Act through Parliament, he was the popular choice to be Scotland’s first First Minister.

In government

In the summer of 1997, Donald asked to see me privately in Stirling. He was in the final stages of agreeing the legislation that would create Scotland’s first democratic parliament elected just two years later. Labour had been elected to government with a huge majority leaving ministers with the opportunity to use that majority at will, but Labour had also promised to implement in full the plans for devolution agreed by the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1995.

A key element of those plans, designed to ensure that the Parliament represented all parts of Scotland and restrict the power of more dominant forces, was the introduction of a proportional system for the Scottish Parliament elections. Donald was under pressure to change this and make it easier for parties who did not have the majority of votes to win a majority of seats. We talked it through, he asked me about the background to the original decisions and the feeling in and beyond the Labour Party on this issue, and then he resolved to do the right thing and stand by the scheme. Thoughtful, thinking through the practicalities of securing agreements, but determined to deliver promises and secure home rule for Scotland. This was Donald Dewar as we all knew him and we owe him a huge debt of gratitude for the way he applied his political judgement, his intellectual skills and his personality to the biggest constitutional change seen in the UK for many decades.

Donald Dewar was one of those politicians who grumble about campaigning but actually love every moment when out and about. I recall a visit to a primary school in Wishaw in April 1999. As a new candidate in a constituency we were hoping to win, he had come out to show his support for me. I thought the young children might not be company that Donald would enjoy the most, but he had a ball. Laughing and joking and of course chatting to the teachers and the staff, making everyone feel that he – and the new Parliament – was on their side.

Two weeks later the election was over, Labour was the largest party – with equal numbers of male and female MSPs as a result of Donald’s determination to deliver that plan too – and Donald was about to become the First Minister of Scotland. That formality having been completed he called his Cabinet selections in one by one, asking me to be the first Minister of Finance. He was honest in saying the job description was a ‘work in progress’, but he said there was work to be done and my role would be to secure the delivery of key promises by all of the other ministers for Health and Education and the Environment and so on. Later he would tell the Queen that he had appointed me because I was a maths teacher and therefore he was sure that I could count.

True to form, as he had done with the proportional electoral system and many of the other policy commitments, he backed me that winter when we took the first full executive legislation through the Parliament creating the Public Finance and Accountability Act that was would set in place open and transparent budgeting procedures and a strong system of independent public audit. We had set out our stall on a new way of working and he was going to support that all the way.

A judgement was required on the extent to which Freedom of Information would be at the heart of our approach to government. We had committed to an Act, we were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats who were also strongly committed to this approach but legislating for Freedom of Information challenges governments. On balance however, Donald came down on the side of openness and transparency again. While the strong commitment under the law to the publication of behind the scenes papers, minutes and correspondence made governing at times more difficult, it was particularly important to ensure that politicians could be held accountable and that decisions made in secret that contradicted the information provided publicly could be exposed and challenged.

In that first year he had to manage many controversies, not just in the relationship with the Parliament or the day to day madness created by the huge media entourage that engulfed the Parliament in the first few years. He pressed ahead with the legislation and he managed the cabinet of old and young, ambitious and more relaxed individuals with consistency, high standards and the occasional use of wit.

That first year he realised that he might have to miss the Remembrance Day Ceremony in Glasgow because of the expectation that the new devolved government would be represented at the National Ceremony in Edinburgh, one advisor recommended a minister who lived closer to Edinburgh who could represent him. “A good idea” said Donald “a period of silence will do her some good”.

His legacy

That first programme for government was designed to deliver the social justice that had driven Donald all of his political life.

In introducing the programme on 9 September 1999, he said

“The programme has big themes: the fight against poverty and the need to unlock opportunity and to raise standards.”

He had wanted to see a unity of purpose across parties and different parts of Scotland, to make the real fundamental changes that would transform lives for those who had the least.

He was chuffed when by the end of the first year we had passed the bill to provide legal rights for adults with incapacity; we had abolished feudal tenure in Scotland and legislated for the first National Parks and higher standards in Scotland’s schools. In the years that followed his death he would have been impressed when the Parliament passed our legislation to provide rights for children with additional special educational needs, or created systems to protect vulnerable children and adults from abuse, or modernised the systems for appointing judges and supporting victims.

And although he was not a spendaholic, preferring reforms and the creation of new legal rights, I believe he would have admired the bravery and determination of Henry McLeish to implement free personal care, and the logic behind our introduction of free bus travel for the elderly, a measure designed to keep our older population active and healthy. I have no idea what he would have thought of the ban of smoking in public places, but I think he would have felt the same pride as I did when, on the day the smoking ban came into force in March 2006, the people of Scotland accepted the decision of the Parliament, supported the new law and went with the choice that had been made for a better future.

And while he, like me, would have disagreed with some of the choices made by the new Scottish government after 2007, these choices were being made in Scotland’s Parliament and he knew there is always room for fresh ideas.

Despite Donald Dewar’s absolute commitment to Scotland and his “cultural nationalism” he was not only committed to the constitutional partnership of the United Kingdom, but he could see that we had to be active beyond our shores.

When I proposed a strategy for engagement across the European Union in my ministerial role in autumn of 1999, he was persuaded that we should go beyond the economic promotion of Scotland to build alliances in order to more effectively engage in European political debates and influence European legislation. Together with the late Robin Cook – a Foreign Secretary for the UK who understood devolution – we opened Scotland House in Brussels in October 1999 during a week of economic, cultural and political promotion. We were clear that engagement at the European level was going to be vital for Scotland’s devolved government.

12 months later I was preparing to travel to Brussels for events to mark the first anniversary of that opening but I received the news that Donald was in hospital and were to congregate in Edinburgh the next day.

I have been lucky enough to have a number of very positive memorable moments in my life.

But one day I will never forget is that day spent in St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh waiting for the final decision, counselling colleagues and worrying about what the future might hold. A miserable day, followed a week later by a funeral fitting for the man, but still a deeply sad sad moment for us all.


Twenty years on, much has changed. And in 2020 more things changed than we could possibly have imagined. But I don’t want to delve into the latest developments in the economic, health and social crisis that dominates debate and decisions again this week. This occasion should take a broader view, looking across the twenty years, and to the next.

From the initial decision in 1987 to join a Constitutional Convention and work with others for a consensus in the national interest, to the determination between 1997 and 1999 to construct a parliament that was more open and accessible than its Westminster counterpart, Donald took the principles of good governance very seriously indeed.

From the decision to give away power and retain the commitment to proportional representation, to the decision to go with more far reaching freedom of information laws than elsewhere in UK, to the construction of our budget system that directly involved the parliament at all stages, this was to be a devolved government in a new image.

When Donald Dewar campaigned for a Parliament for Scotland he was not just campaigning for the devolution of powers or for a change away from the centralisation of Westminster and Whitehall; he was not just campaigning for strong autonomous devolved government or for extra accountability in Scottish public life; he genuinely wanted a Parliament for Scotland. That Parliament, its elected representatives, the quality of debate, the accountability of ministers, the expression of national sentiment, these were the changes, this was the future that drove him on. And as the parliament initially developed the systems that would work in a more open, transparent way, his Ministers worked with the grain.

In the second decade of the Parliament, questions have begun to arise about the way in which these high aspirations are or are not being matched by reality.

Politicisation of the Parliament’s committees and the lack of transparency in dealings with parliamentary inquiries have led to many describing the Parliament as toothless. Protests by journalists and MSPs in 2017 led to a major review of the Scottish government’s handling of FoI requests. This year we have seen these issues come to the fore again during the major health and economic crisis facing Scotland, and the Informational Commissioner has again expressed concerns.

When laws passed by the Scottish Parliament to allow temporary emergency powers to deal with the urgency of a crisis in March have become more permanent and less accountable than the equivalent in Westminster – under a government there that hardly seems to be particularly open and transparent – then the original vision of a new kind of parliament here in Scotland seems to have lost its way.

I have no doubt that Donald would have agreed with me when I say that emergency powers were needed by ministers in March and they had to exercise those powers quickly and with authority in the early days of the crisis. But the Scottish legislation does not contain all the checks needed for opposition to scrutinise and question Ministers’ decisions, and MSPs have few opportunities to speak up for their worried constituents.

As the months have gone on this has become a problem. The dithering over reopening schools and the exams results fiasco might have been avoided with parliament more engaged in the decisions, and perhaps some of the inconsistency in local lockdown restrictions and some of the anger and frustration from businesses, patients and others about not being heard might be avoided too. Consent is precious and should not be taken for granted.

And it is noticeable in any developing debate – about the use of Covid-19 powers or anything else – that there is an absence of strong voices from civic Scotland. In previous decades, voices representing business and workers, the churches and faiths, local government leaders and many more would have spoken out and taken a stand. But today they seem strangely muted.

Twenty years after the First Minister who got power but gave away power left us far too soon, this might just be a very good moment in which to decide to renew the original dynamism and transparency of Holyrood.

In the spirit of Donald Dewar and his willingness to work in the Convention, to work in coalition, and to be accountable in the Parliament he fought for, we should be considering a Democracy Summit for Scotland. Civic leaders, representatives of the different interests – rural and urban, young and old – coming together, perhaps with former MSPs who helped set the original tone, to recommend a shake up at Holyrood and St Andrew’s House and reinvigorate the home rule we so wanted to be different.

The deliberations of such a Summit would be difficult to suppress and its recommendations hard to avoid.

Social justice and child poverty

From the very start of the new parliament Donald’s commitment to social justice drove the agenda of our devolved government. Economic development and jobs, higher educational standards, improvements in public housing, public health and a cleaner environment. He returned to the theme of his first speech after he himself returned to the House of Commons in a debate on the budget on 27 April 1978.

He spoke then of the condition of Glasgow and the lives of his constituents and the need for government and parliament to be on their side. And on behalf of his constituents, he called for common purpose not fragmentation and “unity in the attack on poverty and injustice in society”.

In the years that followed that first programme for government in 1999, both before and after Donald’s death, policies made a real difference to the level of child poverty in Glasgow and across Scotland. Indeed, the percentage of children in Scotland living in poverty dropped year after year, from around a third of all children to around one fifth.

Some of the policies that made a difference were economic, with financial support to families from the UK and Scottish governments, and some were related to the traditional priority public services with improvements in educational attainment and a healthier population. However, other policies that were controversial at the time also played their part.

The transforming of public housing in Glasgow with the transfer of stock to local housing associations gave people a stake in the homes where they lived, decentralising power and decision making out of the city chambers with a radical reform. It was opposed by many, but it has stood the test of time. And studies such as that carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the 20th anniversary of the Parliament last year showed that improvements in housing condition and cost contributed as much to the reduction in child poverty as other financial measures.

Unfortunately child poverty has now steadily increased since the year before the independence referendum, with annual increases now resulting in one quarter of kids in Scotland living in relative poverty.

Meanwhile our education system has dropped dramatically in international comparisons, and the education attainment gap remains far too wide.

As we reflect in this year of the COVID lockdowns and the pandemic, at the state of child poverty in Scotland today, it is not hard to conclude that the problems exposed by the lockdown have demonstrated wider problems in the national effort to help families and children climb out of the constraints of poverty.

It is beyond doubt that the problems that we are already developing in the Scottish education system have been exacerbated by a lockdown where the poorest children appear to have missed out. It is beyond doubt that the restrictions on normal day to day hospital and health services will have a lasting impact on those who can’t afford to go private, exacerbating recent problems in our Scottish NHS. And, just as we were starting to recover from the financial crisis of 2008 and the austerity of the early years of this decade, those with the least seem destined to pay the most for the economic turndown that will follow the lockdown.

One of the most surprising realities of the last few months has been the lack of regular communication and coordination between Scotland’s two governments and Edinburgh and London. I cannot imagine a situation where Donald would have tolerated weeks or months going by without direct one to one communication with the Prime Minister and some attempt at joint communication to reinforce the health messages. And neither would I.

Six months on there are lessons to be learned in tackling the pandemic in Edinburgh and in London. But there is also a huge job to be done to build back better and to help the economy, our businesses and families recover. Surely this demands better coordination and communication between these two governments. In particular, in order to tackle rising child poverty, then pride and partisan politics should be set aside and the two governments should come together in a concerted effort to take the radical economic and social measures that will see child poverty reduced in Scotland again.


On 1 July 1999, Donald Dewar acclaimed the values inscribed on the new Mace gifted by the Queen that day to the Scottish Parliament. He described ‘wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity’ as honourable aspirations. He could see in the Parliament a time ‘When men and women from all over Scotland will meet to work together for a future built on the first principles of social justice.’ And he challenged all of us when he said ‘I hope and I believe 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 common weal.’

Tonight, in these difficult and worrying times, let us renew that vision: refresh the democratic accountability and public engagement that were in our founding genes; set aside differences to eliminate child poverty; and look ahead to a future beyond covid-19 when our nation is less divided and more united in a common commitment to good government and progress. That is who we really are.