Lord Ewing of Kirkford

Politician and architect of devolution

Born: 20 January, 1931, in Cowdenbeath, Fife.

Died: 9 June 2007, in Leven, Fife, aged 76.

CONSTITUTIONAL clichs seem to attach themselves to Labour politicians. Donald Dewar became the "father of the nation", while Harry Ewingwas often referred to as the "architect of devolution". But if that epithet were true of Ewing, then he had to wait almost two decades before his design was finally constructed.

Ewing was an under-secretary at the Scottish Office for five turbulent years from 1974-9, when it seemed to many English MPs that the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan could think of nothing more than the threat posed by a buoyant SNP and its political response. As the first minister specifically responsible for devolution, Ewing was a central figure during that period.

He had an unenviable job. The SNP notched up 11 MPs at the October 1974 general election, but the Labour Party - despite a historic commitment to "home rule" - was reluctant to back Scottish devolution. Even when the policy changed, there remained substantial discontent on the front and back benches.

Ewing had been appointed as an additional under-secretary on the recommendation of Ted Short, then lord president of the council (de facto deputy prime minister), who had been impressed by his handling of the Nationalists in his Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth constituency.

Willie Ross, the combative Scottish secretary, did not share Short's enthusiasm. Nevertheless, Ewing became a member of the constitution unit, tasked with delivering devolution. It was based in the Cabinet Office under, first, Ted Short and, later, Michael Foot.

Ross was a devolution cynic and even when he backed the party line, did his best to limit the remit of the proposed Scottish Assembly. Ewing, by contrast, wanted considerable powers for the devolved legislature, and recalled leaving one negotiation session so profound were his differences with Ross.

The combined Scotland and Wales Bill fell on a guillotine motion, and although its successor, the Scotland Bill, managed to get through the Commons, it did so only with wounding amendments.

The son of a Scottish miner and town councillor, Harry Ewing was born in 1931 and educated at Beath High School in Cowdenbeath, then one of the best state schools in Scotland. He married Margaret in 1954 and worked his way up through various local and national positions in the Co-operative Party, then, as now, closely allied to the Labour Party.

He was also a postman and an active trade unionist, holding numerous offices in the Union of Post Office Workers throughout most of the 1960s.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to enter parliament via East Fife at the 1970 general election, Ewing was selected by Labour to fight a by-election in Stirling and Falkirk following the death of Malcolm MacPherson, who had himself won the seat in a by-election 23 years earlier.

Ewing won, and held the constituency until February 1974, when the boundaries were redrawn to form the new constituency of Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth.

Ewing therefore became a minister just three years after becoming an MP, but it was far from undeserved. He was a sharp political operator at a constituency level, particularly in taking on the resurgent SNP, but his commitment to devolution was not mere opportunism.

When Willie Ross was sacked by James Callaghan in 1976, Ewing sensed that the new prime minister was planning to install the ebullient Dick Mabon as Scottish secretary. He told Callaghan he would refuse to serve under Mabon so Ross was succeeded instead by Bruce Millan, a more technocratic Labour MP whom Ewing held in high regard. Millan was quicker to delegate than his predecessor, and Ewing became the only non-Cabinet member of a committee dealing with the so-called winter of discontent.

But the 1979 devolution referendum and what Ewing called the "treachery" of the 40 per cent threshold ended any chance of devolution in Scotland for a generation. Ewing remained a front-bench spokesman on Scotland following the Conservative victory in 1979, and a decade later he returned to the constitutional fray as co-chair of the Scottish Constitutional Convention alongside the Liberal leader, David Steel.

The constitutional convention drew up the blueprint for what eventually became Labour's devolution legislation following the 1997 landslide election victory. Ewing had left the Commons five years earlier, moving upstairs to become Lord Ewing of Kirkford of Cowdenbeath in the District of Dunfermline, although latterly he rarely attended business in the Upper House.

Instead, Ewing enjoyed retirement at his home in Leven, and watched from afar as devolution finally became a reality in 1999. Ironically, one of its founder members was a distant cousin of Ewing's, Dennis Canavan, who also hailed from Cowdenbeath.

Ewing had two battles with cancer, the second of which led to his death. He is survived by his wife and two children.