David Steel – 2000 Tribute to Donald Dewar

Below is the text of the speech made by the then Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, David Steel, made as a tribute following the death of Donald Dewar. The speech was made on Friday 13th October 2000 in the Scottish Parliament.

This is not a meeting that any of us would have wished to hold. The news of our First Minister’s death came with such devastating suddenness, after we had all assumed that he had come safely through his serious heart operation.

It is cruel how Scotland has been robbed in recent years of so many able politicians in their prime: John P Mackintosh, Labour; Alick Buchanan-Smith, Conservative; Allan Macartney, SNP; John Smith; and now Donald Dewar. Donald, however, at least had the satisfaction of leaving behind the completion of what he described as first a hope, then a belief, then a promise and then a reality – the restoration of Scotland’s Parliament after 300 years.

He questioned the title “father of the nation”, but he was without question the father of the Parliament. Under his leadership, this new Parliament had already found its head, its energy and its skills. Today, as it meets to mourn his death, it has found its heart.

Over the past two days, hundreds of tributes have been paid to Donald Dewar, so many that it is difficult to find anything new to say about him. We do not need to find anything new to say, because what is remarkable about all the newspaper coverage is that the same words keep leaping out from different pages – decency, integrity, trust, dignity, scholar, service and commitment.

Tributes have been coming in from all manner of people. He visited the Irish Parliament a few months ago. Its Presiding Officer wrote to me:

“Having paid tribute to the integrity and proficiency of such a fine politician, the members of the Dáil rose in prayerful silence.”

In May, we had a visit from the President of Malawi. Donald’s heart trouble had already been diagnosed and he had cancelled most of his engagements prior to his operation. However, he was due to give a dinner in Edinburgh castle for the President and he told me, “That is one I am going to keep”. He not only gave the dinner, but he spent the evening showing the President round the castle and over the honours of Scotland, revelling in expounding our history and discussing Scotland’s links with Africa through David Livingstone and others. On Wednesday evening, within hours of the tragic news, I was astonished to receive a telephone call from the President of Malawi himself, expressing his sadness and conveying his condolences to the Parliament. Those two tributes show how Donald touched and impressed those whom he had met but fleetingly. How much more painful, therefore, is his loss to those who knew him well.

However, tributes have come not just from the great and the powerful, but from every walk of life. One Scottish organisation wrote:

“While we and he had not seen eye to eye on every aspect of policy, it had been a comfort to know that the Executive was headed by a man who personified the highest possible standards in public life.”

I add the words of two typical individuals, which I have chosen at random. One said that he

“was not a supporter of his party but, like many others, knew him to be a great ambassador for Scotland and a genuinely good man.”

Another stated:

“Yesterday should have been a day of celebration for me – it was my 40th birthday. I had never met the man, but when I heard the news of his death, I simply had no stomach for a party.”

Furthermore, one entry in our condolence book contains, alongside the signature, just one word: “Thankyou”. That is what we come together today to say. However, Donald would not forgive us if we turned this into a greetin meeting, because there was one other characteristic of Donald’s that I have not yet mentioned – he was always enormous fun to be with. I am going to miss our tête-à-tête dinners dreadfully.

Let me tell you about two episodes with Donald, which both – like all good Donald stories – involve food. More than 40 years ago, a group of Scottish university students visited the Soviet Union. Donald was one, I was another and the Deputy Presiding Officer, George Reid, was also there. We spent a week in Moscow and a week in Leningrad, and the food – especially student food – was of disgustingly poor quality; indeed, a few of us, including Donald, were quite ill.

On our arrival in Kiev for the third week, we sat down to lunch. Suddenly, plates of cream buns appeared and Donald more or less led a standing ovation. He inquired hopefully whether, by any chance, any of the rest of us did not like cream buns and generally displayed such excessive enthusiasm that, to his delight, our host produced cream buns again for dinner. He also produced them for breakfast the next morning, and again at lunch, and for every single meal during that week. I blame Donald for the fact that I have never since then been able to face a cream bun.

On Monday evening, the night before he died, I formally opened the new visitors centre at Holyrood. I spoke of the progress on our new building and of the importance of public access to its development. I paid tribute to architect Enric Miralles, whose widow was with us. I had just finished my speech when Donald shambled into the room. I had not been expecting him and mockingly scolded him saying, “You’ve just missed the best part of the evening”. With a withering look, he said, “Your speech? Oh, I don’t think so. These look like excellent canapés.” He added, “As a matter of fact, David, I think I have just demonstrated for you yet again my impeccable sense of judgment and timing.”

Donald Dewar elevated the profession of politician. As an occupation, politics is too easily derided, but to be a politician should be the highest and noblest calling of all – involvement in the responsible and accountable governance of people’s lives. In a television interview about a decade ago, Lord Hailsham said:

“Nobody I think who knows enough about politics really wants to be a leader. Only a fool would want to stand in that position when you are exposed to the whims of fortune and chance and all the rest of it.”

I do not agree. Of course leadership involves taking knocks and Donald had his share, both personal and political. However, it also provides an opportunity to point a course, to stamp a platform and to gather others to one’s cause – Donald used his qualities of leadership to do all of those.

Now that he is gone, where does that leave us? I commend to you lines by Archbishop Darbyshire, who wrote:

“Not names engraved in marble make

The best memorials of the dead;

But burdens shouldered for their sake

And tasks completed in their stead.”

All of us in the chamber have tasks to complete in his stead.