Appreciation remembers Donald Dewar the lawyer rather than the politician

Donald Dewar will go down in history as Scotland’s First Minister and founder and father of the Scottish Parliament.

However, there are many of us who remember him as a lawyer and indeed he spent more than a quarter of his working life practising law, for the most part in private practice.

Those attending the funeral service and listening through orations could be forgiven for not knowing that fact.  In fact it was said that Donald Dewar, after he lost Aberdeen South in 1969, did not seek the comforts of private practice but rather took up employment as a Reporter in the Children’s Panel. It is true that he did so for a brief time but shortly thereafter he joined the firm of Ross Harper & Murphy for some fifteen years, the first half of which were decidedly active .

But the story of Donald Dewar and the law starts well before his entry into private practice. He served an apprenticeship with Wright Johnstone & McKenzie – and I use the word “apprenticeship” in its loosest possible sense.

In those heady days we attended classes at university usually at eight o’clock and nine o’clock in the morning; strolled into the office via a coffee shop and left at 3.45 p.m. for a class at 4 p.m.  The less industrious of us might occasionally find time to go to a trade show at the Cosmo Cinema, tickets provided by courtesy of Glasgow University magazine.  Our conscience was in some small manner comforted by the fact that we were receiving the princely sum of 30 shillings each week.

Donald carried his abilities to keep ten plates spinning simultaneously into an art form. I am indebted to the Lord Chancellor for the story that Donald was found reading a copy of the Glasgow Herald in the strong-room of Wright Johnstone & McKenzie and also to Menzies Campbell, another contemporary, who recounts that Donald was a notoriously bad speller and kept referring to Wright Johnstone & McKenzie is RJM.

But the pinnacle of his legal apprenticeship was during the Luthuli Rectorial Campaign.  He asked the manageress of the Glasgow University Union to telephone “RJM” saying he was ill, knowing that his talents were needed for the heat of the campaign.

One of the senior partners of the firm saw on television that night the bold Donald being bombarded by flour bombs near Gibson Street and pontificating on the evening news programme about the need to stamp out hooliganism at the university. The fact that he was dressed in a dinner suit on his way to a Rectorial dinner did not improve the temper of the partner concerned.

I spoke to Campbell White, a partner in Wright Johnstone, who remembers Donald well and with affection.   

It was generally thought at that time that Donald’s main interest was in politics - either student politics or Labour Party politics and that law was either an appropriate gateway or an excuse for staying on at the university for another four years.

As a student Donald held court. He was a man to be listened to and not to be trifled with but a genuine man who loved gossip and enjoyed life to the full.  

I met him at a party (where else?) some time after he had lost his seat in Aberdeen South when he was recounting his work as a Children’s Reporter for Lanarkshire – a task which I suspected was not extending him to the full.  I seduced him into private practice and despite his protestations that he knew little law he was catapulted into a busy criminal and tribunal practice where he shone.  

His skill was in dealing with clients and the Bench.  He was patently honest and scrupulous in his dealings and was empathetic to (very distinct from sympathetic for) the needs and aspirations of his clients.

The real complaints in the practice of law came from the shorthand writers. No one ever measured his speed of delivery but it certainly exceeded that of the most competent of shorthand writers.

When Donald took control of the firm’s Airdrie office his knowledge of civil law could, I am sure, have been written on the back of a very small envelope – possibly a postage stamp. He was forever grateful to his fellow partner, now Sheriff Kenneth Mitchell, for considerable help in fashioning the pleadings and keeping him right on procedure. Kenneth was extremely patient since I am told that Donald would phone up at 10 o’clock/11 o’clock at night with details of a Summons which “had” to be served the next day and the bold Kenneth would set about drafting the Summons immediately.

He was a formidable Advocate.  Graeme McKinstry of Ayr recalled that the first time he ever met Donald Dewar was at a Tribunal where, in his own words, he felt that he was totally blown away by this formidable articulate intellect.

Kenneth Pritchard recalls a story when he visited Dundee and appeared before a Tribunal on behalf of the GMB Union.  Kenneth Pritchard was acting for the employer and Donald turned up as the zealot.  As he thumped the table in good style until the Chairman of the Tribunal drily remarked “we recognise that you were an MP but this is not a place where it is appropriate to make a heartfelt political diatribe”.  

Many of the qualities Donald Dewar displayed during his years in the law would prove to be of great use to him in politics.

Dan Russell, a fellow practitioner now sitting as a formidable Sheriff in Hamilton, remembers Donald as a most popular member of the Airdrie Faculty.  A good criminal pleader although always running with several eggs in the basket or balls in the air. Sheriff Lewis Cameron, again in Hamilton, remembers Donald on the Legal Aid Committee where they met on a Friday afternoon – Donald always arguing most passionately that legal aid be granted to every potential civil litigant. Thereafter they would adjourn for a pint and with the beer on one side of the table and Donald’s mail on the other as he finished off his office work in the ambience of an Airdrie public house at the same time commanding the audience as he had done at university.  

One or two of our staff are still in our former Airdrie office now run by Paul Nicolson. They remember Donald fondly as a boss.  Their abiding memory?  How he used to raid the petty cash to make sure there was an abundant supply of chocolate biscuits. Habits do not change with time.  

When he won the seat of Garscadden, fighting against fellow lawyer Keith Bovey, his world became very different. He clearly could not continue running an office in Airdrie and we arranged for him to work in the Glasgow office where the hours in court could be tailored to meet the demands of an expanding political life.  

He was good in court – there is no doubt about that – and very often he was used to go down to handle difficult cases in some of our regional offices.

Eventually he became Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and we saw less and less of him although he was happy to be available during parliamentary vacations.  

I remember vividly one occasion when he had been scheduled to do some court appearances in the morning having been allocated the files the previous night.

He came in about 0945 gently stating that he had some urgent work to deal with at an emergency meeting of the Scottish Executive of the Labour Party and would require to miss the court.  

A mature apprentice, now partner in the firm’s Hamilton Office, Kevin Hughes was in charge of the roster that morning – a difficult enough job in these busy days.  He expostulated somewhat red in the face “Donald Dewar you are worse than a man short”.  

In reality he was a man extra.  He was a great companion, a man of wisdom and common sense and a great friend.  

The work of the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland required tremendous concentration of effort and expenditure of energy. Yet he never lost his connection with the firm or the legal profession generally.  There was, even in the midst of political battle, always something of the trusted Scottish solicitor about Donald Dewar, as evidenced by the fact that other politicians would often approach him for help with personal legal difficulties.

In 1989 the profession was faced with a considerable shake-up in the Law Reform Bill and Kenneth Pritchard and Michael Clancy of the Law Society were in frequent touch with Donald and received immense help over many years.

Kenneth Pritchard tells me the story that he went in to see Donald Dewar just prior to the Bill being debated in the Commons. The Law Society had arranged some 90 amendments.  Donald had an hour before the Debate and was taken through the amendments putting a brief note at each.

Kenneth Pritchard states that he was awe-struck at Donald’s subsequent performance in the House of Commons where he debated the most important amendments as if he had received many hours of briefing.  Opposing him was Malcolm Rifkind and the Law Society was forever grateful to Donald Dewar for assisting in the deletion of many of the worst parts of the Act – including conveyancing by banks and building societies.  

Donald worked all hours of day and night.  Optimism was never his strongest point and it was said frequently of him that he would always see a dark cloud in every silver lining.  The many years in Opposition were taking a toll on him – all the more so when he was “promoted” to become Shadow Minister for Pensions and Social Security. The work, which he had to complete in mastering the Regulations in a short time, was awe-inspiring.

He wondered, just wondered, whether time was passing him by. Whether he would never see Government as a whole new generation of MPs came into the House and successive elections were lost.  

Suddenly the sun shone for Donald. When Labour won the General Election he became Secretary of State for Scotland and the rest is history. But as Secretary of State for Scotland and as First Minister Donald never lost his love of and respect for the law.  He was always glad to get away from the hurly-burly of politics and keep abreast of the gossip about his former partners, his former colleagues and his friends.  

The nation’s loss is keenly felt by the legal profession. His memory will abide with us forever.

Share this article
Add To Favorites