Interview: Tam Dalyell, former MP and author of The Importance of Being Awkward

Tam Dalyell. Picture: Neil Hanna
Tam Dalyell. Picture: Neil Hanna
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DEVOLUTION, Lockerbie, Blair, the latest breed of MPs … the passing of the years has not diminished the passion of Tam Dalyell, 80 last week, writes Stephen McGinty

THE question as to whether or not Tam Dalyell is a member of the “awkward squad”, a position in which he claims to have been slotted shortly after his election as MP for West Lothian in 1962, depends upon a key element: personal perspective. For example, as a generous and impeccably polite host, he is happy to offer the photographer a prawn sandwich, and when this is courteously refused, a strawberry. And when this also fails to prick the appetite, not one plum but three. But what Tam Dalyell will not give the photographer is a picture, or, at least, pose for a photograph that the photographer actually wants to take.

Tam Dalyell pictured in 1958

Tam Dalyell pictured in 1958

From the photographer’s perspective, this could be deemed to be “awkward”; however, from Tam’s perspective, it is perfectly sensible: reaching the age of 80 in the week I spoke to him, he does not wish to appear old. For him, a sedentary portrait of an old man in a chair, or even one standing with the aid of a crutch, is the definition of infirmity and a 
political pose he will not adopt.

“I want to be shown doing something,” he explains in his low, precise but forceful manner which must have been a joy to the shorthand scribblers in the House of Commons, where, between 2001 and his 
retirement in 2005, he was the longest-serving MP in Britain, the Father of the House.

We are in a side room of St Andrew Blackadder Church in North Berwick, where Tam – never Tom or Thomas – is waiting to give a talk about his memoir, The Importance of Being Awkward, as part of the Fringe By The Sea. He is happy to be photographed in conversation, having his microphone fitted or signing a book, but what he won’t do is stare into the distance as if nervously watching for the first glint of death’s scythe.

Earlier, before The Scotsman photographer arrived with his outrageous demands that he sit or stand and have his picture taken, Tam had bristled at the characterisation of the word “awkward”.

“I was branded the awkward squad, but I was never awkward once for the sake of being awkward. It was always on an issue, and an issue that was not trivial; no-one can say that I can be awkward or difficult on a trivial issue. On any subject where I thought that my colleagues knew as much as I did or more, I voted with them. Only on those subjects that I thought that I knew more than my colleagues [did I go my own way].”

The little radio he is carrying with him had, until a few minutes before, been blaring out the latest commentary from one of the consequences of Tam Dalyell’s awkwardness: the Olympics. “I’m … hooked … on … it” he says slowly for emphasis before repeating the words. “Hooked … on … it” Yet, arguably, the reason the modern Olympics is still around, and certainly the reason why Sebastian Coe and Allan Wells were able to win their gold medals in Moscow in 1980, was because Tam Dalyell launched a successful rear-guard action against Margaret Thatcher’s view that Britain should side with America and boycott the games in response to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.

“What was true was that I put spine into Dick 
Palmer, the general secretary of the British Olympic Association, and said that they should not cow down to what Mrs Thatcher wanted to do, which was prevent them from going to Moscow. The lesser consequence is that Allan Wells, Seb Coe and others would not have received their gold medals. The more serious consequence, if there had been a refusal of the Brits to go to Moscow, 
was that there would certainly have 
been consequences in the eastern bloc. I’m not saying that it would have happened, but it could have happened, and that would have meant the break-up of the Olympic idea.”

At the time, Tam’s words were heeded. They weren’t, however, the previous year when he pointed out the activities of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, who was then in the Netherlands as a research student in 
metallurgy but secretly gaining access to information from the Centrifuge Project at Almelo. Dr Khan went on to father the Pakistani bomb, as well as equipping North Korea with the same atomic knowledge.

To some, Tam Dalyell was always going to be an awkward fit in the Labour Party, as an Old Etonian with a family home, the House of the Binns, which dates back to the early 17th century. But the truth is, he would 
surely have been a tall colourful sail in whatever party he sought safe harbour. He had been chairman of the Conservative Association at Cambridge, but switched to Labour in 1956, after the Suez crisis.

After graduating, he trained as a teacher, first at Moray House College in Edinburgh, after which he helped pioneer the idea of ship schools, which would give pupils an opportunity to see as well as learn about the world. He became an MP almost by accident after being asked to make up the numbers at a selection panel, but after he was chosen as the Labour candidate for West Lothian, he won a tough battle against William Wolfe of the SNP and went on to retain his seat for the next 43 years by, among other means, respecting the voter and diligently visiting as many homes as possible. He detests the current breed of politicians who have risen without ever holding down a real job.

“Nobody should be allowed to stand for the House of Commons unless they have had five years in a job … and I would have included a housewife as a job. It is not anti-feminist. I want people with experience other than politics. I am appalled, absolutely appalled, by this ya-boo behaviour. Certainly, there were strong feelings expressed in the Sixties, but now every Prime Minister’s Questions, Miliband and Cameron are bloody well the same, and they are children”

To most Scots, the awkwardness of Tam Dalyell centres around two subjects: devolution and Lockerbie. In the late 1970s, when Labour began to advocate a degree of devolution for Scotland, Tam was an early and persistent critic. During the passage of the Scotland Bill, he would rise in the Commons and ask a simple question, which could be endlessly modified: “How can it be that I can vote on education in Accrington, Lancashire, but not in Armadale, West Lothian?” Each day he would re-phrase it: “How can I vote for health in Whitburn, County Durham, but not Whitburn, West Lothian?” Conscious of how tiring he had become, he once added that it was a question that “cannot be asked too often”. To which John Smith, the future Labour leader, replied: “Oh, yes, Tam, it bloody well can be asked too often.” It was Enoch Powell who rose and said: “To save time, let us call the gentleman’s point the “West Lothian Question”. (Many years later, when a journalist was despatched to question the residents of West Lothian as to what the WLQ actually was, many believed it revolved around pigeons.)

Time and the erection of the Scottish Parliament has certainly not softened his views. When I say that he is very critical of devolution, he stops to correct me.

“Not very critical – wholly opposed … wholly opposed,” he states. “I am the arch anti-devolutionist.”

As he was a former teacher before entering parliament, I ask him what he would write on the parliament’s report card, but it would appear he wouldn’t write anything. I think he would simply expel it as a feral and dangerous youth.

“John Stuart Mill had the phrase ‘the deep slumber of a decided opinion’,” he said. “I have not woken up from the slumber. No. Not at all.”

Yet why does he remain so critical? “I am positively a believer in the regions. West Lothian was never so well served than when it was Lothian Region, and I have a view on Scotland actually, that we are a series of rather different places, and I’m not sure Aberdeen wants to be run from Edinburgh and I’m jolly sure that Glasgow doesn’t want to be run from Edinburgh. But, of course, there is more than that. My real objection is still the same one, which is that once you get a parliament then the members of that parliament will ask for more and more and more.”

At this point the event’s organiser pops in with tea and coffee.

“Oh, bless you … and your sandwiches are lovely. Who made them?

“I’m afraid Tesco did.”

“Well, Tesco North Berwick has competence!”

After praising the culinary delights of Tesco, he goes on the express his personal admiration for Alex Salmond. “Let me confess. I am a personal friend. My first memory – and Alex disputes this, but my memory is very clear – is as the local MP I was invited to Bo’ness Academy and there was this clever, bumptious, cheeky boy, the only one in the class who asked me repeated questions. On what? On prices and incomes policy, the most difficult subject. If you were to ask me in the years that I was Father of the House for the five most effective MPs from the back benches, Alex Salmond would have been one of them.”

The Olympics, he believes, has helped to solidify the union. “I … think … if … there was to be a referendum at the end of the Olympics and Chris Hoy was to point out that he could not have possibly won those gold medals if there had been a separate Scottish team …

“The referendum is not going to take place on 18 August, 2012, and things can change in two years. Harold 
Wilson said a week was a long time in politics – well, two years is a little longer, but I think it may have altered people’s attitude towards Britain.”

Should Scotland vote for independence in the referendum in 2014, we will, he believes, regret it: “I would know that they would regret it in the medium or long term, not in the short term.”

On the question of Lockerbie, he remains convinced of Libya’s innocence and states, in his book, that the United States was aware of the plot to bomb the Pan Am flight by Iran as retaliation for the downing by America of an Iranian passenger jet in the summer of 1988. As he writes: “I came to conclude that a Faustian agreement had been reached, whereby the Americans would 
connive at one airliner being destroyed.” As he corrals two volumes of research into seven pages in his memoir, it is best to conclude that nothing will change his mind: “What I think is that the Libyans might have known about it. Were they the perpetrators? No, they were not.”

Of the eight prime ministers who have served while he was an MP, it is Tony Blair, not Margaret Thatcher, of whom he has the least regard. “On the Today programme John Humphrys said ‘Mr Dalyell, you said last year that Tony Blair was the worst prime minister … have you changed your mind, as a Labour MP.’ I said: ‘Yes, Mr Humphrys. I have changed my mind. By far the worst.’ And that is my view.”

I ask him about his political regrets. “Being idiot enough to vote for Michael Foot over Denis Healey as leader of the Labour Party. Kathleen was so furious.” It is clear that he and his wife remain devoted to each other. Outside she is briefing Glenn Campbell, the BBC journalist who is chairing the debate, not to let him ramble and to just yank him back should he linguistically stray. It is said that all political 
careers end in failure, but, as Tam Dalyell did not have the conventional career, I wonder how happy he is today.

“I’m totally happy,” he replies. “I have been very lucky in marriage and in all sorts of things.” When I ask what he still wants to do, he smiles. “Keep my bees, love my wife. I still have my eye-sight, and every day is a bonus.”

TAM QUOTES

“On the Today programme John Humphrys said: ‘Mr Dalyell, you said last year that Tony Blair was the worst prime minister … have you changed your mind, as a Labour MP?’ I said: ‘Yes Mr Humphrys. I have changed my mind. By far the worst.’ And that

is my view.”

“I want people with experience other than politics. I am appalled by this ya-boo behaviour. There were strong feelings expressed in the Sixties but now every Prime Minister Questions, Miliband and Cameron are bloody well the same and they are children”

“I think if there was to be a referendum at the end of the Olympics and Chris Hoy was to point out that he could not have possibly won those gold medals if there had been a separate Scottish team … but a lot can happen in

two years”