In the heyday of Scottish variety theatre, a top-of-the-bill act was comedian Chic Murray and his partner Maidie – headlined as “The Tall Droll with the Small Doll”. Scottish politics has its equivalent today in the First Minister, Donald Dewar, and his protegee, the diminutive minister for communities, Wendy Alexander.
Dewar’s richly comic deadpan delivery at after-dinner occasions has often been likened to the much-loved funnyman, minus his trademark tartan bunnet. Alexander, like the much put-upon Maidie, plays it straight. This warmly funny side to the First Minister has won him a special place in the hearts of the Scottish electorate. He may be a quirky character, but his humour, obvious decency and long years of nurturing the Scottish Parliament from conception to tottering infancy have earned him the unofficial title of “Father of the Nation”.
These days, however, Dewar is finding the laughs hard to come by. He is very publicly struggling to retain his standing with the Scottish people and his authority over the Scottish government. Dewar and his First Ministership are victims of his own personality which is more complex than his admirers realise. Although he can be gregarious, gossipy and gloriously funny in company, he is a solitary man. When the actor Tom Conti visited the Edinburgh parliament, his delectable wife gave the long-time-unmarried Dewar a kiss. “That doesn’t happen very often!” he blushed. Aye, we all thought, maybe that’s the trouble . . .
He has led one of the boldest and riskiest reforms of our constitution government. Yet, despite that daring, his leadership style is cramped and cautious. Having done some of the toughest jobs in government, he is too soft-hearted. He relies on a small ring of close cronies and he is paralysed by loyalty when they let him down.
He is by far the most experienced politician in Scotland, with over 30 years in the front line. Yet, because of his aloofness, his spin-doctors are left to handle the aggressive Scottish media like the bunch of beginners they are. In the last two months, a pile-up of personal calamities, administrative bungles, policy cock-ups and presentational disasters has left Dewar looking like a concussed road-accident victim. He wore a glassy-eyed grin on TV when described to his face as a “lame duck” in charge of a drifting administration.
Dewar’s judgement has been questioned following the spectacular demise of two of his closest aides and the public humiliation of a third. His loyalty to colleagues which led to the mishandling of the departures earned another cruel nickname – “Donald Dither”. Some Westminster MPs have gone on record with their openly con-temptuous comments. They admit their self-interest – they will be losers if this continues because they will be the first to face the brassed-off Scottish voters at the next general election. As if that were not enough, Holyrood has become embroiled in a confrontation with a large section of Scottish public opinion and various powerful interests over the repeal of Clause 28.
Alexander had become a double act with Dewar and her smooth ascent to a high-profile ministry virtually marked her out as his chosen heir. However, her career will take a long time to recover from the total failure to foresee the all-too-obvious backlash and prepare the ground with assurances to Scottish parents and religious leaders. As a result, Scottish Cabinet colleagues have had to come to her aid and she has been forced to take a back seat.
A number of her colleagues have been muttering for some time that the Dewar administration is too cliquey. Ministers feel excluded while special advisers are listened to – the same people who have brought discredit on the administration.
One suggested solution is the appointment of a Labour deputy to take the strain, do the dirty work and restore Dewar to his lofty “father of etc .” role. My own paper, the Labour-supporting Daily Record splashed the suggestion with the headline: “Donald Where’s Your Bruiser?”
But the suggestion has been knocked firmly on the head.The lame excuse was given that the Deputy First Minister, Jim Wallace, might be offended. The fact that the Labour Party cannot act for fear of hurting the tender feelings of a Liberal Democrat is surely a terrible warning of the debilitating effect of coalition government.
If Dewar cannot countenance having a deputy, he must demonstrate more trust in his ministers by treating them as equals. If that allows a clear and competent successor to emerge, so much the better.
A limited reshuffle on the first anniversary of his government in May would send a firm “Donald is in charge” message. It would also get rid of a couple of obvious flops and make room for the promotion of the likes of Andy Kerr, the former Glasgow council hard man who is the increasingly impressive spokesman for Labour MSPs.
Not so long ago, a second term as First Minister was taken for granted. Now Dewar’s colleagues think he should be facing up to his problems. And he can’t be enjoying his present, laughless routine. It is anything but droll.