Dewar's £3m starts tongues wagging

Reading the will is one of those ceremonies that can bring out the worst in people. When local papers used to report the estates of an area's worthies, it would keep the gossips going for weeks. Now, Scotland has become a nation of nosy parkers after the publication of the legacy left by the late Donald Dewar. Tongues clacked and heads wagged at the revelation that the almost eccentrically shabby and simple-living Dewar had left a personal estate that will exceed £3m.

It was surprise enough that a man who lived on fish fingers, takeaway curries and the pickings from official buffets should have turned out to be a multimillionaire. Still more surprising was that the Labour stalwart who led the Scottish campaign against Thatcherism had large shareholdings in privatised companies such as Railtrack, Powergen and Thames Water. Dewar had opposed the privatisation of British Rail, described selling off Scotland's electricity supply as "asset-stripping nonsense" and successfully campaigned against Tory proposals to privatise Scotland's water.

Bob Thomson, a former treasurer of the Scottish Labour Party, said, with old Labour angst, that it showed how things had changed in the party. The ideologically pure Tommy Sheridan, leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, pointed out that Dewar had a financial interest in keeping Railtrack and the other companies in private hands.

The inventory of Dewar's estate is almost a history of his genteel middle-class upbringing, his twin careers in politics and the law, and the solitary existence caused by the break-up of his marriage.

In the 1970s, the lowest years of his life, when his political career stalled and his wife Alison left him for their friend Derry Irvine, now the Lord Chancellor, he became a partner in one of Scotland's most prosperous law firms. After returning to Westminster, throughout the years in opposition, he spent parliamentary vacations as a working partner.

The bulk of his estate was in three houses, one of which he inherited. He stayed on in the matrimonial home in Glasgow's upmarket West End and, just before his death, he bought a £240,000 flat nearby, but never moved in. This was mainly to house his growing collections of antiquarian books and paintings, mainly the sought-after Scottish colourists, of which he said: "People make it sound as if I've got the Glasgow Guggenheim."

What made the Dewar fortune so unexpected was the contrast with his lifestyle, which was anything but millionaire- like. His university nickname of "the Gannet" was borne out by his habit of making a beeline for the buffet at official functions - and stuffing sausage rolls and sandwiches into his pockets as a precaution against peckishness when he was on his own. At one OAP function, he almost made a start on a packet of custard creams - until told it was the bingo prize.

His home was sparsely furnished with 1960s pieces, and only when he became First Minister was he persuaded to discard his suits from M&S (of which he was a shareholder) for more expensive makes. He only ever owned one overcoat, which he lost after a couple of days.

Coincidentally, another Scottish Labour leader - this time a living one - is embroiled in a financial furore. Tom McCabe, the minister for parliament (equivalent of the chief whip and leader of the house at Westminster), has scandalised Scots by negotiating himself a £9,500 annual allowance to buy a flat in Edinburgh - although his constituency home is only a 50-minute drive from the Scottish Parliament and he can claim an £83-per-night hotel allowance if unavoidably detained.

Perks for Scottish politicians have been a touchy subject from the beginning. The MSPs' first act, on getting their bottoms on parliament seats, was to vote themselves a £90,000-a-year salary-and-expenses package.

Eyebrows were further raised when it emerged that McCabe, an ex-leader of South Lanarkshire Council and a former Hoover plant worker, had acquired a £300,000 house in a snooty village in the west of Scotland (yes, there is such a place - and your correspondent lives at the poorer end of it). Given McCabe's past bruising performance as arm-twister-in-chief, there were enemies aplenty queuing up to make the most of his surprising affluence.

Labour politicians and money always make an uncomfortable alliance. Trouble is, they do seem to have an unfortunate habit of attracting each other.