Donald Dewar
The Right Honourable
Donald Dewar
First Minister of Scotland
In office
17 May 1999 – 11 October 2000
Deputy Jim Wallace
Preceded by Office created
Succeeded by Jim Wallace (acting)
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 office
19 October 1995 – 2 May 1997
Leader Tony Blair
Preceded by Derek Foster
Succeeded by Alastair Goodlad
Member of the Scottish Parliament
for Glasgow Anniesland
In office
6 May 1999 – 11 October 2000
Preceded by Constituency created
Succeeded by Bill Butler
Member of Parliament
for Glasgow Anniesland
In office
2 May 1997 – 11 October 2000
Preceded by Constituency created
Succeeded by John Robertson
Member of Parliament
for Glasgow Garscadden
In office
13 April 1978 – 2 May 1997
Preceded by William Small
Succeeded by Constituency abolished
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 21 August 1937(1937-08-21)
Glasgow, Scotland
Died 11 October 2000(2000-10-11) (aged 63)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Political party Labour
Alma mater University of Glasgow

Donald Campbell Dewar (21 August 1937 – 11 October 2000) was a British politician who served as a Labour Party Member of Parliament (MP) in Scotland from 1966-1970, and then again from 1978 until his death in 2000. He served in Tony Blair's cabinet as Secretary of State for Scotland from 1997-1999 and was instrumental in the creation of the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999. He led the Scottish Labour Party into the first ever Scottish parliamentary election in 1999, and was elected both as an MSP and as First Minister of Scotland at the head of a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition.

A native of Glasgow, Dewar studied at Glasgow University and worked there as a solicitor. He first entered the House of Commons in the general election of 1966, as the Labour MP for Aberdeen South, at the age of 28. He lost his seat in the 1970 election, but returned as an MP for Glasgow Garscadden at a by-election in 1978. In 1983, Dewar was promoted to the shadow frontbench as the Shadow Scottish Secretary, and was strong supporter of Scottish devolution. Following the return of the Labour Party to government in 1997, Dewar became the Secretary of State for Scotland and campaigned for a 'Yes-Yes' vote in the successful referendum on Scottish devolution. When elections were held to the newly created Scottish Parliament in 1999, as leader of the Scottish Labour Party and through a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Dewar became the inaugural holder of the First Minister of Scotland post. He was also elected as the MSP for Glasgow Anniesland, the seat he also represented as an MP.

In 2000, Dewar died of a brain hemorrhage and was succeeded as First Minister of Scotland and Scottish Labour leader by Henry McLeish. By-elections were also held to the Westminster and Scottish Parliament constituency of Glasgow Anniesland.


Early life

Born at 194 Renfrew Street, Glasgow on 21 August 1937 to mature parents, Dewar was an only child. His father Alisdair was a distinguished consultant dermatologist but suffered from tuberculosis. His mother Mary (née Bennett) suffered from a benign brain tumour when Donald was very young.

He attended the Glasgow Academy before studying at the University of Glasgow, in 1957, where he gained both a MA degree in History in 1961, and a second-class LLB degree in 1964, as well as editing the Glasgow University Guardian. Here, he met his close friend, 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) through the Dialectic Society. In his time at university he also served as Chair of the Glasgow University Labour Club and President of the Glasgow University Union. In 1962 he was selected as Labour candidate for Aberdeen South.

Member of Parliament

A member of the Labour Party, Dewar worked as a solicitor in Glasgow, but soon tried to get elected to the Parliament of the United Kingdom. He unsuccessfully contested the marginal seat of Aberdeen South in the 1964 general election, and won it in the landslide Labour victory at the 1966 general election at the age of 28, defeating Priscilla Tweedsmuir by 1,799 votes.

In his maiden speech in the House of Commons Dewar railed against proposed increase on potato tax. This was his first notable success - the tax was repealed in 1967. That year he was made Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Education Secretary Anthony Crosland, with whom Dewar later confessed to never really establishing a rapport, saying Crosland was a "very odd man". He held that position until 1969. That year, Dewar opposed a visit to Aberdeen by the Springbok rugby side, staging a silent vigil near the ground. In April 1968 he was proposed for a Minister of State position by Roy Jenkins but nothing came of it. Dewar lost his seat to Iain Sproat at the Conservative victory at the 1970 general election by just 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.

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."[1]

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,[2] 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

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

Death and funeral

Statue of Dewar

In April 2000, Dewar was admitted to hospital for tests on his heart, following a previous test where a minor irregularity was discovered.[6] In May 2000, he later 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.[7] He returned to work on 14 August 2000.[8]

Dewar dealt with the exams 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 time.[9]

On 10 October 2000 around lunchtime, Dewar sustained an icy fall. He seemed fine at first but later that day suffered a massive brain hemorrhage which was possibly triggered by the anticoagulant medication he was taking after the heart surgery. Donald Dewar died one day later 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.

Personal life

He married Alison Mary McNair on 20 July 1964. They had two children together: a daughter, Marion, and a son, Ian. But in 1972 she left him for the Scottish lawyer Derry Irvine. He and his wife divorced in 1973 and Dewar never remarried. [10] The two men remained unreconciled, even though they later served in the same Cabinet from May 1997 until 1999, when Dewar left to become First Minister.


One of the first scandals to hit the new 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.[11] 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.[12]

Dewar also threatened to sack any minister or aide who briefed the media against another member of the executive, following public rows between Jack McConnell and the Minister of Health and Community Care, Susan Deacon over the budget allocated to health .[13]


Dewar's work for the Scottish Parliament has led him to be called the "Father of the Nation".[14][15]

In May 2002, then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair unveiled a statue of Dewar at the top of Glasgow's Buchanan Street — and 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.


  • Torrance, David, The Scottish Secretaries (Birlinn 2006)

External links

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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