Around 500 people this week crammed into a sweltering tent to hear the former Labour MP plug his aptly titled autobiography – The Importance of Being Awkward.
As it happened, the book – full of colour and detail on the causes he has pursued so relentlessly – was hardly mentioned at all. But that didn’t really matter. The audience was content to listen to a stream of political anecdotes that spanned the post-war era. For example, they were given an insight into the writing habits of one of the great political diarists. As Dick Crossman’s parliamentary private secretary, Dalyell recalled that rather than writing up his diary on a daily basis (as the books themselves suggest) he left that chore to the weekend when he was back in his constituency.
“Therefore, he is much more prescient and wise about the events on Monday and Tuesday than a Thursday or Friday,” Dalyell said. Dalyell’s view that parliaments ought to contain representatives from all walks of life was illustrated by a story about a long-forgotten Labour MP, Dick Winterbottom, an Oldham butcher who was “no great shakes in the House of Commons but marvellous on a soap box”.
In the Rotherham by-election of 1965, Winterbottom was addressing a crowd when a voice came from the throng saying: “Winterbottom…you idiot…Winterbottom you effing idiot.”
Winterbottom smiled and said: “Perhaps I am an effing idiot, but there are tens of thousands of effing idiots in this country that ought to be represented.”
Tam, being Tam, there were also plenty of trenchant political points including an almost obligatory contretemps with a lawyer in the audience over the Lockerbie bombing. On the Scottish Parliament, he thought it should be “abolished”. To some disapproving noises, he said he would vote No because he believed in Britain, while the West Lothian Question, which he first articulated in the 1970s, concerning the injustice of Scottish politicians voting at Westminster on English issues, he said would remain unanswered. This was because it was almost impossible to define “English-only” issues as they all had implications for the UK Treasury. As an old soldier and former school teacher, he was particularly withering about the former special advisers, student politicians and party researchers who enter Holyrood and Westminster without experience of life outside the political bubble.
Whether you agree or disagree with this contrary veteran of Labour politics, he proved once again at the book festival that a couple of hours in his company are often entertaining and rarely misspent.