Tam Dalyell, man of duty and integrity

He was hoisted upon colleagues shoulders after winning his seat at the House of Commons and was a fierce thorn in the side of prime ministers at Westminster.
He was hoisted upon colleagues shoulders after winning his seat at the House of Commons and was a fierce thorn in the side of prime ministers at Westminster.
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HE coined the West Lothian Question, relentlessly pursued Margaret Thatcher over the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War and strongly criticised Tony Blair over Iraq.

Tam Dalyell, who died on Thursday, aged 84, has been hailed for his persistent rebelliousness and outspoken dissent on a wide range of issues as well as his politeness and eloquence.

Tam Dalyell was respected across party lines. 
Picture: Neil Hanna

Tam Dalyell was respected across party lines. Picture: Neil Hanna

But in addition to a high national profile, he was also a dedicated constituency MP for 43 years, widely respected by voters of all parties.

Mr Dalyell began his political career when he won the 1962 West Lothian by-election.

Graeme Morrice, former Labour MP for Livingston, said he first met Mr Dalyell when he helped in his 1979 general election campaign in West Lothian.

Mr Morrice recalls “He was very much part of the West Lothian fabric. He lived locally and everyone knew him. He was ‘Our Tam’ – he was almost like part of people’s family.

“To this day, people will say if they went to him with their problems he would take personal ownership of it and do all he could to get it sorted. There are thousands of people out there who have benefited from Tam being their local MP.

“He was a passionate supporters of the miners during their strike in the mid-80s and very much involved in the fight to save British Leyland when that was facing closure. He was always there when there was any big local issue, fighting, raising it at the highest level to get the best deal for the area.”

Mr Dalyell came from a privileged background – his family had lived at the historic House of the Binns, near Linlithgow, for almost 400 years.

He was a Tory while at 
university in Cambridge, but quickly switched to Labour.

Lothian Labour MSP Neil Findlay said: “Tam was my greatest political friend and a mentor for almost 30 years. He was without doubt one of the greatest parliamentarians of the last 50 years.

“An old Etonian with a cut glass accent who lived in the historic family castle at Binns, he may not have seemed to have much in common with his working class constituents in communities like Blackburn, Armadale, Fauldhouse and Whitburn but Tam was genuinely loved by the people he represented and over half a century developed a tremendous relationship with them.

“He saw it as his absolute duty to speak up on issues he felt strongly about and do his very best for the people he represented.”

Many will remember Mr Dalyell best for his campaign over the Argentinian warship General Belgrano, which was sunk by a British submarine with the loss of hundreds of lives. He harried Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for years afterwards, claiming the Belgrano was steaming away from the Falklands when she was attacked.

He was equally opposed to the war in Iraq and accused Tony Blair of being a war criminal.

The other defining issue of his career was his opposition to devolution, which he summed up in the famous West Lothian Question – “Why should I as an MP be able to vote on education in Blackburn, Lancashire, but not in Blackburn, West Lothian?”

He warned devolution would be “a motorway without exit roads to a separate Scottish state”.

But he loved to debate the issue and in the 1979 Scottish Assembly referendum he toured the country with Jim Sillar on a Yes-No roadshow.

Mr Sillars said: “Tam was a man of rock-hard integrity and a wonderful parliamentarian. Although we were opposed on so many occasions I had the utmost respect for him and his ability. We accepted both of us were speaking from a principled position.”

Martyn Day, SNP MP for Linlithgow, said: “Despite our many political differences, Tam was always a true gentleman.

“My first visit to Westminster was as a guest of Tam when I was nine years old – and I had never been back to the Commons until I was elected MP. “I have many fond memories and will miss his handwritten letters offering his thoughts and opinions of the political goings-on, and my work in parliament.

“While you could disagree with him, you could never fall out with the guy.

“When I was a councillor and he was the MP I always had a good relationship with him. He was approachable – and that’s what the public found as well.

“He was popular – even with Nationalist voters.

“People liked him. He was never a divisive figure.”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com