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Canavan on TV would entertain and inform

One name that did not feature enough in the discussion about who should take part in the pre-referendum television debate was that of Dennis Canavan.

Technically, he is Alistair Darling's counterpart. Mr Canavan leads the Yes campaign; Mr Darling leads the No campaign. Similarly, Alex Salmond is the direct counterpart of David Cameron; he leads the Scottish Government, while Mr Cameron leads the UK Government.

But apart from constitutional propriety, I'd love to see Mr Canavan taking on Mr Darling, because it would not just be good politics, it would be wonderful entertainment.

Both men owe their political careers to the Labour Party. Mr Canavan could superficially be accused of disloyalty because he quit the party to go off in a new direction.

But he might argue, with pertinence, that his party left him.

Whereas Mr Darling seamlessly embraced New Labour, the Tony Blair construct that always seemed to me to have surprisingly little to do with the Labour Party as it had been, in Scotland anyway, for most of the 20th century.

Mr Canavan is a cerebral man. He is a clever mathematician and a fluent, intelligent writer, and he was in his time an effective secondary school teacher. But as a politician his heart often rules his head. He's not a desiccated calculating machine, to use Nye Bevan's withering phrase about Hugh Gaitskell.

I got to know him shortly after he was elected the Labour MP for the then West Stirlingshire constituency in 1974. I was working as an education correspondent and Mr Canavan soon became a godsend; he attacked his own party, then in office, and the Scottish Education Department, with forensic gusto.

It helped greatly that he always knew exactly what he was talking about, given his own experiences at the "chalk face," and his inside knowledge of Scottish educational politics.

He was an excellent local MP. At that time I knew a lot of folk living in the Killearn area, in the west of his constituency, and while most of them were Tories, they knew that Mr Canavan was always assiduous in his work on behalf of all parts of the constituency. Indeed I suspect that some of them secretly voted for him.

I helped him campaign in the 1979 General Election; not because I was convinced by the Labour message (I'd witnessed the disasters of the Callaghan years) but because I appreciated him as a politician who had been helpful to me as a journalist. I also reckoned that the experience would be lively. And so it proved.

I remember him bellowing out through a loudspeaker as he toured Kilsyth: "Don't let that witch hang up her curtains in Downing Street". Actually, witch wasn't the word he used, but it nearly was.

He saw what Thatcherism would entail more clearly than most of his colleagues.

At that time he also detested the SNP, and there is no doubt that Mr Canavan has made a long political journey. But throughout it he has shown bravery and genuine independence.

He has remained true to his core values of social justice and the need for a better, fairer Scotland. He followed his ideals. Now in his 70s, he still has energy and gusto, and a fluency in debate that most politicians half his age can only dream of.

In the midst of his travails with the Labour Party I was sad to hear the late Donald Dewar - a man for whom I had enormous respect - describe Mr Canavan publicly as "simply not good enough".

That demeaned Mr Dewar; and anyway Mr Canavan was far too good for a party that was turning somersaults as it reinvented itself for English voters.

Indeed I reckon that the key difference between Mr Canavan and Mr Darling lies in their attitudes to the UK.

Mr Canavan has long since realised that the UK is irrelevant to his particular political mission; whereas for Mr Darling, and New Labour, the UK is ultimately more important than Scotland, which is merely one component part of their chosen political territory.

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Local government

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