Donald Dewar, the father of Scottish devolution, would be dismayed by what it's become – Brian Wilson

Twenty years ago today I was in Maribor, second city of Slovenia. UK ministers had been dispatched to exude goodwill to states which were about to join the EU.

Donald Dewar was the picture of happiness and ambition fulfilled at the state opening of the Scottish Parliament but spent the last 18 months of his life fighting a tide of negativity, says Brian Wilson (Picture: Ben Curtis/PA)
Donald Dewar was the picture of happiness and ambition fulfilled at the state opening of the Scottish Parliament but spent the last 18 months of his life fighting a tide of negativity, says Brian Wilson (Picture: Ben Curtis/PA)

Strolling care-free from castle into square on a golden autumn day, I was met by grim-faced officials. Donald Dewar had suffered a brain haemorrhage and was unlikely to survive.

It is a moment etched on memory because for decades Donald had been part of our family’s life. We were one of the safe houses where he was fed and watered before returning to his solitary quarters in Glasgow’s west end.

In return, Donald provided gossip, hilarity and gloom around great and trivial issues of the day. The Labour Party’s absurdities formed his specialist subject. He was kind, clever and funny. Our children remember him fondly.

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Donald had been loyal to my own ad hoc political career, presenting himself in places where Labour votes were collectors’ items. In return, he harvested a feast of anecdotes to dine out on. When I finally got serious and became an MP, he put me on Labour’s front-bench.

Thatcher’s legacy

Our differences on devolution were largely subsumed in the Thatcher years. When Donald was lauded as godfather of the Scottish Parliament, he responded that it had only one god-parent and that was Margaret Thatcher.

In other words, the insensitivity of her reign made it inevitable because a consensus developed that Scotland should never again be exposed to the full rigours of a government it had not voted for. As a democrat, I accepted that while retaining a less optimistic view of likely consequences.

We had seen less of Donald since devolution kicked in. His health was in decline. He was surrounded by advisers. What should have been halcyon days for the politician who, unarguably, delivered what he promised turned into a nightmare of petty controversies.

If I had to pick two images of Donald from the mind’s eye, one would feature a rugged hand-knitted jumper presented when he visited a community co-operative in Lewis and still on his back 20 years later. Donald did not do fashion.

The other has him alongside the Queen at the opening of Holyrood, the picture of happiness and ambition fulfilled. I suspect it was one of his last cheerful moments in the job he was born for, as the realities of what he had created closed in.

A bastion of democracy

Donald was dismayed by the ease with which parts of the Scottish media which had cheer-led for devolution turned against it at the earliest opportunities. Holyrood was never given a chance to find its feet and he spent the last 18 months of his life fighting a tide of negativity.

While there may have been lofty hopes for Holyrood to become a bastion of the democratic intellect, there was always a higher probability of it turning into a too-cosy club with insufficient scrutiny. When one looks at what is going on just now, there is little doubt about how that balance has tipped.

If Donald had tried to set up a daily press event, which did not allow follow-up questions, the collective Scottish media would have told him to take a ride. Of course, he would never have dreamt of it but that was 20 years ago.

This week saw a master-class in news management – days of fan-dancing by Ms Sturgeon about what she would or would not ban. On Wednesday, the Murrell admission was slipped into the public domain via a friendly newspaper. A blind man in a hurry could see what was going on.

Yet that day’s news bulletins contained no reference to the extraordinary confirmation that the chief executive of the SNP and husband of the First Minister, had urged a political colleague to pressurise Police Scotland to act in pursuit of a political objective.

That contrast with the breathless coverage about very little which made Donald’s declining days a misery perhaps symbolises the biggest change in 20 years of Scottish politics. It was scarcely the intended outcome.

Mediocre and ineffectual

How would Donald view his legacy? I guess he would be quietly pleased that Holyrood has become an established part of the national furniture but it is difficult to see much else he would be celebrating.

The quality of debate, which he loved, is mediocre. The committee system in which so much trust was placed is ineffectual. The Parliament, as we have seen during the pandemic, is by-passed by an executive with more regard for its own profile than democratic niceties.

He would be dismayed – if not entirely surprised – that far from representing “the settled will of the Scottish people”, Holyrood reflects even more sterile division about the constitution. I think he hoped, rather than believed, it might be otherwise.

But Donald’s political interest was not only in the constitution. Far from it. His greatest disappointment, as it should be for us all, would lie in how little the inequalities which characterise our society have been challenged or changed.

A car took me from Maribor to Vienna and on the plane home, I wrote an obituary, which perhaps stands the test of time: “Criticism and argument were meat and drink to him. But he was hurt and bewildered as Scotland became a goldfish bowl in which every grievance, real or imagined, was magnified out of all rational proportion.

“He came back from major heart surgery far too soon, for reasons inherent in his dominance of Scottish politics. He had become indispensable… But now he has been dispensed with and the political life of Scotland will go on – less stylishly, less intelligently, less decently, but it will go on.”

That seems a fair description of where we still are – and from where we need to progress.

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