Donald Dewar

Donald Campbell Dewar (21 August 1937 – 11 October 2000) was a Scottish politician who served as First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the Scottish Labour Party from 1999 to 2000. He previously served as Secretary of State for Scotland from 1997 to 1999. He was Member of Parliament (MP) for Aberdeen South from 1966 to 1970 and for Glasgow Anniesland, formerly Glasgow Garscadden, from 1978 to 2000. He was also Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for the equivalent seat from 1999 to 2000.

Donald Dewar
Dewar c. 1999–2000
First Minister of Scotland
In office
17 May 1999  11 October 2000
MonarchElizabeth II
DeputyJim Wallace
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byJim Wallace (Acting)
Henry McLeish
Leader of the Scottish Labour Party
In office
7 May 1999  11 October 2000
UK party leaderTony Blair
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byHenry McLeish
Secretary of State for Scotland
In office
2 May 1997  17 May 1999
Prime MinisterTony Blair
Preceded byMichael Forsyth
Succeeded byJohn Reid
Opposition Chief Whip of the House of Commons
In office
19 October 1995  2 May 1997
LeaderTony Blair
Preceded byDerek Foster
Succeeded byAlastair Goodlad
Shadow Secretary of State for Social Security
In office
24 July 1992  19 October 1995
LeaderJohn Smith
Margaret Beckett (acting)
Tony Blair
Preceded byMichael Meacher
Succeeded byChris Smith
Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland
In office
31 October 1983  24 July 1992
LeaderNeil Kinnock
Preceded byBruce Millan
Succeeded byTom Clarke
Parliamentary offices
Member of the Scottish Parliament
for Glasgow Anniesland
In office
6 May 1999  11 October 2000
Preceded byConstituency established
Succeeded byBill Butler
Member of Parliament
for Glasgow Anniesland
Glasgow Garscadden (1978–1997)
In office
13 April 1978  11 October 2000
Preceded byWilliam Small
Succeeded byJohn Robertson
Member of Parliament
for Aberdeen South
In office
31 March 1966  18 June 1970
Preceded byPriscilla Buchan
Succeeded byIain Sproat
Personal details
Donald Campbell Dewar

(1937-08-21)21 August 1937
Glasgow, Scotland
Died11 October 2000(2000-10-11) (aged 63)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Cause of deathCerebral hemorrhage
Political partyScottish Labour
Alison McNair
(m. 1964; div. 1973)
EducationUniversity of Glasgow

Dewar first entered politics in the early 1960s and was elected as Member of Parliament for Aberdeen South at 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. He served as Secretary of State for Scotland in British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet from 1997 to 1999. Dewar was an advocate of Scottish devolution, 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. In October 2000, Dewar died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 63 while still in office. He was succeeded as First Minister and Scottish Labour leader by Henry McLeish.

Often regarded as the father of the nation,[1] Dewar is known for his work and commitment to the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament and being the inaugural First Minister of Scotland.[2][3]

Early life and career

Dewar was born in Glasgow on 21 August 1937 as the only child of Alasdair (1897–1973) and Mary Dewar (née Bennett). His father was a dermatologist and a 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.[4]

He attended The Glasgow Academy, and was admitted to the University of Glasgow in 1957, where he gained an 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 Lord Irvine of Lairg (who would serve as Lord Chancellor in the same Cabinet as Dewar). At university, he also served as chair of Glasgow University Labour Club and president of the Glasgow University Union.

Early political career

Member of Parliament

He worked as a solicitor in Glasgow after graduating from university, and was also a member of the Labour Party, and 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 failed to win the seat, but won it at the 1966 general election at the age of 28—defeating Priscilla Tweedsmuir by 1,799 votes.[5]

In his maiden speech to the House of Commons in the same year, Dewar spoke against a proposed increase on potato tax. His speech became his first political success: as the tax was repealed the following year 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 with, as Dewar said Crosland was a "very odd man".

Dewar remained in that position at the Department of Education until 1969, in which year he 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 constituency seat to the Conservative candidate Iain Sproat at the 1970 general election by over 1,000 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.

Return to Westminster

Donald Dewar was selected for the seat Glasgow Garscadden by a majority of three, after Dewar's friend in the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers MP Willie Small died unexpectedly. He was returned to parliament at a by-election on 13 April 1978, a crucial 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% required, contributing to the downfall of the Callaghan 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 divided itself further due to internal disagreement, Dewar was almost deselected in his constituency by hard left activists, but he successfully defended himself against this threat.

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,[6] 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 mostly the same constituency with minor boundary changes. Labour won this election by a landslide, and Dewar was given the post of Secretary of State for Scotland. He was able to start the devolution process he dreamt of years earlier, and worked tirelessly on creating the Scotland Act, popularly referred to as "Smith's unfinished business". When ratified, this was to give Scotland its first Parliament for nearly 300 years.

First Minister of Scotland

Premiership of Donald Dewar
17 May 1999  11 October 2000
Donald Dewar
CabinetDewar government
PartyScottish Labour Party
Appointed byElizabeth II
SeatBute House
Dewar (left) with Queen Elizabeth II and Presiding Officer David Steel (right) at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, July 1999

Election and nomination

In January 1998, he confirmed that he would stand for a seat in the Scottish Parliament.[7] 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 Scottish National Party led by Alex Salmond.

He was elected as the Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Glasgow Anniesland, having the unusual distinction of being both an MP and MSP for the same 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.[8]

'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.[9]

On 13 May 1999, 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.[10]


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.[11]

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.[12] 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.[13]

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 Minister of Health and Community Care Susan Deacon over the budget allocated to health .[14]

Death and funeral

In April 2000, Dewar was admitted to hospital for tests on his heart, following a previous test where a minor irregularity was discovered.[15] 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.[16] He returned to work on 14 August 2000.[17]

Dewar dealt with the 2000 exam results controversy and the lorry drivers' strike, and attended the Labour Party conference in Brighton, but at the end of September he 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.[18]

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 following 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, 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.


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 then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, and other Scottish politicians.[19]
Bust of Donald Dewar by Archie Forrest in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow

Dewar's work for the Scottish Parliament has led him to be called the "Father of the Nation".[20][21]

In May 2002, then Prime Minister Tony Blair unveiled a statue of Donald Dewar at the top of Glasgow's Buchanan Street, a street in Glasgow city centre. 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 from vandalism. 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 Old 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 dedicated to his memory. This award supports talented young Scottish artists.[22]

Personal life

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 entered a relationship with the then Derry Irvine, a prominent Scottish barrister in London. Dewar and his wife divorced in 1973, and he never remarried.[citation needed] Dewar and Lord Irvine of Lairg never reconciled, even though they later served in the same Cabinet from May 1997 until 1999.

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."[23]

Dewar amassed a personal fortune in excess of £2,000,000 including public utility shares, antiques and artwork with a value of over £400,000.[24]


  1. "Profile: Donald Dewar the architect of the Scottish Parliament". Holyrood Website. 4 October 2019. Retrieved 29 January 2021.
  2. "'Father of nation' dies". BBC News. 11 October 2000.
  3. "The Father of the Nation, who made good on the unfinished business of devolution". The Independent. 22 September 2011.
  4. Allan 2000, para. 5
  5. Chambers Biographical Dictionary, 2007
  6. The Scottish Government, 1998
  7. "Dewar to stand for Scottish parliament". BBC News. 8 January 2008. Archived from the original on 9 April 2003. Retrieved 5 March 2017.
  8. The Guardian, 1999
  9. Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations
  10. BBC News, 1999a
  11. BBC News, 1999b
  12. "Probe launched into lobbying allegations" Archived 22 December 2007 at the Wayback Machine, BBC News
  13. "Scotland Standards watchdog clears McConnell" Archived 15 December 2003 at the Wayback Machine BBC News
  14. Public Finance- 14 July 2000 Archived 7 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  15. BBC News 2000a
  16. BBC News 2000b
  17. BBC News 2000c
  18. "Donald Dewar" Archived 13 May 2012 at the Wayback Machine, Electronic Scotland, October 2000
  19. BBC News 2002
  20. "'Father of nation' dies". BBC News. 11 October 2000. Archived from the original on 17 December 2006. Retrieved 29 March 2010.
  21. Grice, Andrew (12 October 2000). "The Father of the Nation, who made good on the unfinished business of devolution". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 17 September 2009. Retrieved 29 March 2010.
  22. "The Dewar Awards". Dewar Awards. Archived from the original on 24 June 2016. Retrieved 25 May 2016.
  23. The Herald 2009
  24. Womersley, Tara (2 July 2001). "£2m legacy of Dewar, the canniest of Scots". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 23 March 2014.