Donald Dewar

The Right Honourable
Donald Dewar
First Minister of Scotland
In office
17 May 1999  11 October 2000
Deputy Jim Wallace
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Jim Wallace (Acting)
Labour Party Leader in the Scottish Parliament
In office
7 May 1999  11 October 2000
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Henry McLeish
Secretary of State for Scotland
In office
2 May 1997  17 May 1999
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Preceded by Michael Forsyth
Succeeded by John Reid
Opposition Chief Whip in the House of Commons
In office
19 October 1995  2 May 1997
Leader Tony Blair
Preceded by Derek Foster
Succeeded by Nick Brown
Shadow Secretary of State for Social Security
In office
18 July 1992  19 October 1995
Leader John Smith
Margaret Beckett (Acting)
Tony Blair
Preceded by Michael Meacher
Succeeded by Chris Smith
Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland
In office
31 October 1983  18 July 1992
Leader Neil Kinnock
Preceded by Bruce Millan
Succeeded by Tom Clarke
Member of the Scottish Parliament
for Glasgow Anniesland
In office
6 May 1999  11 October 2000
Preceded by Constituency established
Succeeded by Bill Butler
Member of Parliament
for Glasgow Anniesland
Glasgow Garscadden (1978–1997)
In office
2 May 1997  11 October 2000
Preceded by William Small
Succeeded by John Robertson
Member of Parliament
for Aberdeen South
In office
31 March 1966  18 June 1970
Preceded by Priscilla Buchan
Succeeded by Iain Sproat
Personal details
Born (1937-08-21)21 August 1937
Glasgow, Scotland
Died 11 October 2000(2000-10-11) (aged 63)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Political party Labour
Spouse(s) Alison McNair (1964–1973)
Children Marion
Alma mater University of Glasgow

Donald Campbell Dewar (21 August 1937 – 11 October 2000) was a Scottish politician, the inaugural First Minister of Scotland and an advocate of Scottish devolution.

Dewar first entered politics as the Labour Member of Parliament (MP) for Aberdeen South following the 1966 general election. After losing his seat in 1970, he served in the House of Commons again from 1978 until his death in 2000.[1] He served as Secretary of State for Scotland in British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet from 1997 to 1999, successfully campaigning for a Scottish Parliament in the 1997 Scottish devolution referendum.

Having led the Labour campaign in the run-up to the first Scottish Parliament election, he subsequently became the Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Glasgow Anniesland on 6 May 1999, and was appointed Leader of the Scottish Labour Party a day later and became the first Scottish First Minister as the head of a devolved coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

He died of a brain hemorrhage while in office, and was succeeded as First Minister and Scottish Labour leader by Henry McLeish.


Dewar was born in Glasgow on 21 August 1937 as the only child of Alisdair (1897–1973) and Mary (née Bennett). His father was a dermatologist and former general practitioner. Both Dewar's parents had ill health during his childhood; his father contracted tuberculosis and his mother suffered from a benign brain tumour when Donald was young.[2] He attended the Glasgow Academy, and was admitted to the University of Glasgow in 1957, where he gained a MA degree in History in 1961, a second-class LLB degree in 1964, and was an editor of the Glasgow University Guardian. Dewar met several future politicians at the university Dialectic Society, including John Smith (who would later become leader of the Labour Party), Sir Menzies Campbell (who would later become leader of the Liberal Democrats) and Derry Irvine (who would serve as Lord Chancellor in the same cabinet as Dewar). At university, he also served as chair of the Glasgow University Labour Club and president of the Glasgow University Union.

On 20 July 1964, Dewar married Alison Mary McNair, with whom he had two children: a daughter, Marion, and a son, Ian. In 1972, McNair separated from Dewar and took up a relationship with the Scottish lawyer Derry Irvine. Dewar and his wife divorced in 1973, and he never remarried. [3] Dewar and Irvine never reconciled, even though they later served in the same Cabinet from May 1997 until 1999.

Member of Parliament

He worked as a solicitor in Glasgow after graduating from university, and was also a member of the Labour Party, and he soon turned his sights towards being elected to parliament. In 1962, he was selected as the Labour candidate for the Aberdeen South constituency. In the 1964 general election, he unsuccessfully contested the seat but successfully contested it in the 1966 general election at the age of 28—defeating Priscilla Tweedsmuir by 1799 votes.

In his maiden speech to the House of Commons that year, Dewar spoke against a proposed increase on potato tax. His speech became his first political success: the tax was repealed in 1967. Also in 1967, Dewar was made a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Education Secretary Anthony Crosland, with whom Dewar later confessed to having never establishing a rapport—saying Crosland was a "very odd man". Dewar remained in that position at the Department of Education until 1969, in which year Dewar opposed a visit to Aberdeen by the Springbok rugby team and staged a silent vigil near the team's ground. In April 1968, he was proposed for a Minister of State position by Roy Jenkins, but was not appointed. Dewar lost his parliamentary seat to Iain Sproat at the Conservative victory in the 1970 general election by over 1000 votes.

Out of parliament

Dewar spent much of the 1970s looking for another parliamentary seat. He hosted a Friday evening talk show on Radio Clyde, and in June 1971 was beaten by Dennis Canavan when he applied for the seat of West Stirlingshire. He worked as a solicitor for much of that decade and became a reporter on children's panels and was involved with the Lanarkshire local authority. Dewar became a partner in Ross Harper Murphy, in 1975.

In September 2009, Dennis Canavan said Dewar reacted callously when his son was diagnosed with skin cancer in 1989. The disease eventually killed him. Canavan said Dewar remarked, "Oh no! That's all we need. He was mad enough before but I shudder to think what he'll be like now."[4]

Return to Westminster

Donald Dewar was selected for the seat Glasgow Garscadden by a majority of three, after Dewar's friend the veteran Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers MP Willie Small died unexpectedly. He was returned at a by-election on 13 April 1978, an important victory which was seen as halting the rise of the Scottish National Party. In Scotland's first referendum on devolution, held in March 1979, he campaigned for a "Yes" vote alongside the Conservative Alick Buchanan-Smith and the Liberal Russell Johnston. Though they won a narrow majority, it fell short of the 40 per cent required, accelerating the fall of the Labour Government, in May 1979.


Dewar gained a parliamentary platform as chairman of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. After a year honing his inquisitorial skills, he joined the front bench in November 1980 as a Scottish affairs spokesman when Michael Foot became party leader. In 1981, as the Labour Party tore itself apart in a civil war, Dewar was almost deselected in his constituency by hard-left activists, but he fought off the move. He rose quickly through the ranks, becoming Shadow Scottish Secretary in November 1983. On 21 December 1988, Dewar was in Lockerbie after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103,[5] as the member of the Shadow Cabinet in charge of Scottish affairs. In 1992 John Smith made him Shadow Social Security Secretary and three years later Dewar was made a Chief Whip for the Labour Party by Tony Blair.

In government

At the 1997 general election he became MP for Glasgow Anniesland, which was largely the same constituency with minor boundary changes. Labour won this election, and he was given the post of Secretary of State for Scotland. He was able to start the devolution process, and worked endlessly on creating the Scotland Act, popularly known as Smith's "unfinished business". When ratified, this was to give Scotland its first Parliament for nearly 300 years.

First Minister of Scotland

'There shall be a Scottish parliament.' Through long years, those words were first a hope, then a belief, then a promise. Now they are a reality.

—Dewar, at the official opening of the Scottish Parliament on 1 July 1999.[6]

Dewar (left) with Queen Elizabeth II and Presiding Officer David Steel (right) at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, July 1999

The first elections to the Scottish Parliament were held on 6 May 1999, with Dewar leading the Scottish Labour Party against their main opponents, the SNP under Alex Salmond. He was elected as the Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Glasgow Anniesland, becoming both MP and MSP for this constituency. Although Scottish Labour won more seats than any other party, they did not have a majority in Parliament to allow them to form an Executive without the help of a smaller party. A deal was agreed with the Scottish Liberal Democrats to form a coalition, with Dewar agreeing to their demand for the abolition of up-front tuition fees for university students.[7]

On 13 May, Dewar was nominated as First Minister, and was officially appointed by the Queen on 17 May at a ceremony in the Palace of Holyroodhouse. He later travelled to the Court of Session to be sworn in by the Lord President and receive the Great Seal of Scotland.[8]

On 16 June, Dewar set out the legislative programme for the Executive which included: an Education bill to improve standards in Scottish schools; land reform to give right of access to the countryside, a bill to abolish the feudal system of land tenure; and a bill to establish National Parks in Scotland.[9]

Death and funeral

In 2002, a nine-foot (2.7 m) bronze statue of Dewar was erected outside Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall in a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Tony Blair and Scottish politicians.[10]

In April 2000, Dewar was admitted to hospital for tests on his heart, following a previous test where a minor irregularity was discovered.[11] In May 2000, he had surgery to repair a leaking heart valve, and was forced to take a three-month break from Parliament, with Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace taking over as Acting First Minister.[12] He returned to work on 14 August 2000.[13]

Dewar dealt with the exam results fiasco and the lorry drivers' strike, and attended the Labour party conference in Brighton in September, but at the end of September told the historian Tom Devine in Dublin that if there was no surge of the energy of old, he would have to reappraise the situation within a few months.[14]

On 10 October 2000 around lunchtime, Dewar sustained a fall. He seemed fine at first but later that day suffered a massive brain haemorrhage which was possibly triggered by the anticoagulant medication he was taking after the heart surgery. He died the following day, in Edinburgh's Western General Hospital, never having regained consciousness. He was 63 years old.

Dewar's funeral service was held at Glasgow Cathedral, amid scenes of mourning unknown for a politician in Scotland's largest city. He was cremated on 18 October 2000, and his ashes were scattered at Lochgilphead in Argyll.

"Although he has become something of a political legend, Donald would have abhorred any attempt to turn him into some kind of secular saint. He would have been horrified at a Diana-style out-pouring of synthetic grief at his untimely death." Iain MacWhirter, Sunday Herald, 15 October 2000.


Bust of Donald Dewar by Archie Forrest in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow

One of the first scandals to hit the new Scottish Parliament occurred when allegations that the lobbying arm of public relations company Beattie Media had privileged access to ministers were published, prompting Dewar to ask the standards committee to investigate the reports.[15] The Minister for Finance, Jack McConnell, was called to appear before the standards committee during the investigation although he was later cleared of any wrongdoing and the committee declared there was no evidence he had been influenced from lobbying by Beattie Media.[16]

Dewar also threatened to sack any minister or aide who briefed the media against another member of the Scottish Executive, following public rows between Jack McConnell and the Minister of Health and Community Care, Susan Deacon over the budget allocated to health .[17]

Dewar, a left of centre politician representing one of Glasgow's peripheral housing estates with high levels of deprivation, amassed a personal fortune well in excess of £2,000,000 including public utility shares, antiques and artwork worth over £400,000.[18]


Dewar's work for the Scottish Parliament has led him to be called the "Father of the Nation".[19][20]

In May 2002, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair unveiled a statue of Dewar at the top of Glasgow's Buchanan Street. In keeping with his famous unkempt appearance, it showed Dewar wearing a slightly crushed jacket. The statue was taken down in October 2005 to be cleaned and was re-erected on 6-foot (1.8 m) high plinth in December in an effort to protect it. On the base of the statue were inscribed the opening words of the Scotland Act: "There Shall Be A Scottish Parliament", a phrase to which Dewar himself famously said, "I like that!"

Dewar called the Royal High School on Calton Hill in Edinburgh a "nationalist shibboleth", mainly because it had been the proposed site of the Scottish Assembly in the 1979 referendum. Dewar's opposition to the Calton Hill site partly contributed to the selection of the Holyrood site, which proved expensive.

The First ScotRail Class 334 train 334001 was named Donald Dewar in his memory. The "Dewar Arts Award" was created by the Scottish Executive in 2002 his memory. This award supports talented young Scottish artists.[21]


  1. Chambers Biographical Dictionary, 2007
  2. Allan 2000, para. 5
  3. "Ministers turn their backs on marriage.". The Daily Mail. 15 January 2001. Retrieved 2007-08-17.
  4. The Herald 2009
  5. The Scottish Government, 1998
  6. Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations
  7. The Guardian, 1999
  8. BBC News, 1999a
  9. BBC News, 1999b
  10. BBC News 2002
  11. BBC News 2000a
  12. BBC News 2000b
  13. BBC News 2000c
  14. "Donald Dewar", Electronic Scotland, October 2000
  15. "Probe launched into lobbying allegations", BBC News
  16. "Scotland Standards watchdog clears McConnell" BBC News
  17. Public Finance- 14 July 2000
  18. Womersley, Tara (2 July 2001). "£2m legacy of Dewar, the canniest of Scots". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  19. "'Father of nation' dies". BBC News. 11 October 2000. Retrieved 29 March 2010.
  20. Grice, Andrew (12 October 2000). "The Father of the Nation, who made good on the unfinished business of devolution". The Independent. London. Retrieved 29 March 2010.
  21. "The Dewar Awards". Dewar Awards. Retrieved 2016-05-25.


External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Donald Dewar.
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Priscilla Buchan
Member of Parliament
for Aberdeen South

Succeeded by
Iain Sproat
Preceded by
William Small
Member of Parliament
for Glasgow Garscadden

Constituency abolished
New constituency Member of Parliament
for Glasgow Anniesland

Succeeded by
John Robertson
Political offices
Preceded by
Michael Forsyth
Secretary of State for Scotland
Succeeded by
John Reid
New office First Minister of Scotland
Succeeded by
Jim Wallace
Party political offices
New office Leader of the Scottish Labour Party
Succeeded by
Henry McLeish
Scottish Parliament
New constituency Member of the Scottish Parliament
for Glasgow Anniesland

Succeeded by
Bill Butler
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