Being lost for words
Donald Dewar was seldom lost for words. But let me share with you an occasion when he seemed stumped. Ten years ago – to the day.
The world had learned of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
My first thought, let me stress, concerned the personal tragedy involved, the bereavement of her young family.
As a Scottish political journalist, however, a second thought inevitably intruded. We were just days from the referendum on Scottish self-government, due to be held on September 11.
What was to be done? Partisan campaigning appeared unthinkable. But would the ballot itself have to be postponed – and also the referendum in Wales, due a week later?
I called Donald Dewar to seek his views. As I recollect, I contacted him at roughly the same time of the morning as I am writing this. Ten years ago, precisely.
It would be glib to say he was in shock, a common experience at the time. However, with minimal time to absorb the facts, he was understandably struggling to produce a substantive response.
Frankly, he did not know what was to be done. I sympathised and ended the call.
As expected, campaigning was suspended. However, the decision was taken to continue with the vote on 11 September.
Offstage, another issue was canvassed. It may seem brutal – but some assessment was made, privately, as to the possible impact of the tragedy upon the referendum.
By that, I do not remotely mean opinion surveys or anything of the sort. Rather, there were clumsy, behind-the-hand conversations among those who were participating in the campaign, on both sides.
Would Diana’s death encourage people to cluster round the Royal Family? Would it make people, somehow, feel more “British”? Would that make them less inclined to vote Yes in the referendum?
I am not making this up. Perhaps there was a strain of collective madness loose at this particular time. Perhaps that polluted an already febrile political atmosphere in Scotland. But I heard these questions asked.