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There are few politicians in Scotland, who leave the political arena as respected as they entered it. Dennis Canavan is one. His autobiography, ‘Let the People Decide’ (Birlinn, £9.99) is a remarkably simple and straight-forward account of events and times which were far from simple and straightforward.  
The foreword by Tony Benn speaks of Canavan’s eloquence, emotion and modesty. Benn also recounts an episode from Nelson Mandela’s 1996 UK tour. Prior to Mandela’s speech in Westminster Hall, Canavan tapped Margaret Thatcher on the shoulder and questioned why she was present. ‘Why?’ she asked him. ‘Well, I distinctly remember you describing Nelson Mandela as a terrorist and saying that anyone who believed that the ANC would form a democratic government in South Africa was living in cloud cuckoo land.’
Canavan’s first chapter wrestles with the painful experiences of losing three of his sons. Most human beings would be broken by such a horrific combination of events. Who can know how Dennis Canavan survived that? Yet he has the eloquence of which Benn speaks, a simple, clear eloquence, which shines the brighter because we know of these experiences.
Canavan was a young school teacher and Labour Party activist when he was selected as the Labour candidate for West Stirlingshire for the second 1974 general election. Willie Baxter, the sitting MP, a millionaire businessman, reacted to the indeterminate outcome of the February election by calling for a coalition led by Prince Philip. His constituency Labour Party, with a significant base of activists from the National Union of Mineworkers, was outraged. Baxter resigned. Canavan was selected, defeating among others Donald Dewar. From the outset therefore Canavan was not part of the Labour Party establishment.
Yet he was no Marxist firebrand. He was what he always remained, a traditional left-of-centre social democrat. He supported nuclear disarmament, a Scottish parliament and public services. He supported Clause IV (the section of the Labour Party constitution committing the party to public ownership) but pragmatically rather than from any commitment to a planned, state-owned economy. Like many in the Labour Party, however, he saw capitalism as rapacious, social inequalities as unacceptable and poverty as morally wrong. Labour’s job was to remedy these wrongs.
He was raised in Cowdenbeath in a working-class, Catholic family. His grandfather had been a Labour councillor. Education was both a good thing in itself and a means of improvement. Canavan both criticises his schooling (the rote learning, the harsh discipline based on reiterated beltings) and praises it. He completed his school education at St Columba’s High School ‘under the tutelage of some of the worst and some of the best teachers I have ever experienced’, a view shared by many who experienced Scottish schools in the 50s and 60s.
In post-war working-class communities such as Cowdenbeath, pride of place shaped a local culture in which solidarity was an essential to survival, where social injustice was visible but where there was also a deep-rooted optimism that it could be ended by democratic political action. It is that background which put light years between Canavan and New Labour, which in Mandelson’s infamous phrase, was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’.
Before he became either a teacher or a socialist, however, Canavan almost became a priest. He spent two years at Drygrange seminary studying theology before he realised that his mother’s suggestion, that he was ‘too wild to be a priest’ was accurate. He never seriously questioned his belief in God or in basic Christian teachings yet in his subsequent life he certainly left traditional Catholicism.
There is a certain naïveté in his assertion that he could never understand why the Catholic Church in Scotland continued sending young men studying for the priesthood to the Scots College in Spain during the Franco regime. The simple answer is that no-one supported Catholicism more loyally than the authoritarian Franco and no institution supported Franco more loyally than the authoritarian Catholic Church. Except in relating the harrowing narrative of the deaths of his sons, he is reticent about his personal life but it is clear from his remarriage at least that Canavan has moved from orthodox Catholicism.
The book travels lightly over a range of Scottish experiences but the gist of the story is the gradual drift of the Labour Party from the roots and principles which Dennis Canavan valued. He was an ardent opponent of Thatcher’s Falklands adventure when even the one-time left-winger Michael Foot joined the war chorus. He does not defend the tactics of Scargill but he vigorously campaigned in support of the miners during the 1984-85 strike. Although no supporter of the Republicans, he refused to back the hard-line, Loyalist position of Mason and Concannon on Northern Ireland. He opposed the Iraq war.
Canavan was, from the outset, a consistent supporter of devolution. He takes some pleasure in noting the various Labour politicians whose positions changed substantially over the years. (The present writer will admit to having opposed devolution at the time of the 1974 referendum but being an active supporter of a Yes-Yes vote in 1997.)  By 1997, however, Labour had metamorphosed into New Labour. Canavan never left the Labour Party but the Labour Party had certainly left Dennis Canavan. The party hierarchy moved heaven and earth to ensure that he was not selected as a candidate, indeed was not even on the approved list, for the Scottish parliament. Canavan, contesting his Falkirk West constituency, essentially as an independent, not only beat the Labour Party but secured the highest majority of any MSP. Old Labour had put New Labour to the sword.
What follows is the tale of the first two Scottish parliaments and Dennis Canavan’s role in them. He was a gadfly and an honourable gadfly. He was moved by Tommy Sheridan and Robin Harper as first minister in the first parliament. He supported the right of access to Scottish land. He campaigned for St Andrew’s Day to be a national holiday. He never, however, made the mark in Holyrood which might have been expected of him. Perhaps that was an expectation too far for a man who had lost what he had lost.
Throughout the book Canavan’s bête noire is revealed as Donald Dewar. Dewar was of course the right-wing candidate at the 1974 West Stirlingshire Labour selection conference which Canavan won. The rivalry was long distilled. Canavan tells the disconcerting tale, told to him by the then Scottish Labour whip, Allen Adams, that when Adams informed Dewar of Canavan’s son’s terminal illness, Dewar’s response was ‘Oh no!  That’s all we need. He was mad enough before but I shudder to think what he’ll be like now.’ If true it tarnishes the ‘Father of the Nation’ myth.
He also quotes Dewar’s response at a Labour fund-raising event to explain Labour’s refusal to endorse Canavan as a member of the panel of candidates for the Scottish parliament: ‘He is simply not good enough.’ That of course was absurd. If Canavan had been good enough to be a Westminster Labour candidate in five general elections, how could he be not good enough? The issue was political and neither about personal quality (as Dewar opined) nor about personal grudges as Canavan suggests. The Labour Party had long abandoned the principles which sustained Dennis Canavan. Principles indeed were dangerous things in its shiny new Edinburgh parliament.
That new parliament is a little less shiny today. Canavan, the most traditional of the parliament’s gad-flies is gone. Tommy Sheridan’s public persona has dimmed immeasurably. Only Margo MacDonald remains. (Her autobiography will be a more than welcome piece of reading to all committed to politics beyond the party hacks. When is it coming, Margo?). Dennis Canavan is enjoying life with his young son. He deserves every piece of pleasure he can take and a legitimate sense of pride in a career rooted in values and in principles, commodities in short supply in the party which treated him with such contempt and in party politics generally.
The above article was first published in Scottish review on 1 Dexcember 2010:

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