Tam Dalyell

The whole point about a politician like Tam Dalyell, if you face the thing squarely, is that he lives, plays, breathes, eats and sleeps politics. So, to encounter his shambling figure in corridors other than those of the Palace of Westminster would be an aberration, a perversion of nature, an unsettler of the spirit. This, at least, is what I try to convince myself as I stare dumbly at the phone I have just put down. The conversation has gone like this:

Tam Dalyell, in a low, even voice: ‘Tam Dalyell here.’

Me: ‘Ah, yes, thanks for returning my call. I was wondering if I could tempt you into being the subject of an interview in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine. What I had in m…’

TD: ‘Can you come over to the Commons and do it now?’

Me, noting that my watch says it’s 8.45am: ‘Well, I hadn’t really. . .’

TD: ‘What about tomorrow morning at 8.30?’

Me: ‘I was thinking more along the lines of doing something at the old Dalyell ancestral home in Scotland. Ha ha ha.’

TD: ‘We could, but not for a few weeks.’

Me: ‘A few weeks wouldn’t be a problem.’

TD: ‘I’ll see you tomorrow at 8.30 then.’

The Binns, his 17th-century pile overlooking the Firth of Forth, is supposed to be quite something. According to a colleague of mine who once stayed there, it has turrets, peacocks and portraits of General ‘Bluidy Tam’ Dalyell (1615-1685), and his son, the first ‘Sir Tam’, scowling down from the walls. Of course, it also has an atmosphere of gloomy, Spartan discomfort, as provided by the 10th Baronet and current occupant, in keeping with his Old Labour pneuma.

But this must be taken on trust. For when I meet him at the appointed hour of 8.30, the Old Etonian warhorse who has been Labour MP for Linlithgow (formerly West Lothian) since 1962 is sitting in a high-backed chair, under the portraits of Balfour and Bonar Law, in the Chess Room of the House of Commons.  Though he says so himself, Tam Dalyell is a pretty nifty player. Indeed, the last visitor he faced across a chessboard in this room was Garry Kasparov, against whom he played a safe gambit. But this is small talk and, famously, Dalyell is not much given to it. Has to be at the Scottish Office for a meeting at ten, he says. Let’s crack on. Where do I want to start?

Well. Actually. The Scottish Office seems as good a place as any. The battle against the Devolution Bill is all but lost; having had its second reading, it is now going through its committee stage before the third reading, and looks set to reach the statute books before the summer recess. For this debate Dalyell has kept his powder dry. ‘I want to be on my feet for the entire proceedings,’ he intones darkly. ‘In the Speaker’s notebook, those who have already spoken tend to go down the list and so I have been saving myself.’

Dalyell is renowned for his quixotic pursuit of lost causes.  Indeed, his ability to ask 50 terse supplementary questions on the same subject often invites groans when he rises to speak in the Commons chamber. It will be recalled that it was he who, years after the General Belgrano was sunk, continued to badger Mrs Thatcher about whether it was sailing west or nor’-nor’-east at the time it went down. He was the one who relentlessly supported the Libyans whom he believed to be wrongly accused of the Lockerbie bombing. And it was to Tenacious Tam that Saddam Hussein looked for help, as an intermediary to lift sanctions in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

But it’s the thorny issue of whether power should be devolved to Scotland which has preoccupied most of the man’s waking thoughts for the past 20 years. During the 1977 devolution debate, Dalyell asked variations of the same question a staggering 190 times. The gist of it was: ‘Why is it possible for me to vote on, say, housing matters in Blackburn, Lancashire, but not on housing matters in Blackburn, West Lothian?’ Exasperated at hearing it asked so often, Enoch Powell noted dryly that the House was seized of the point, the penny had dropped, and so, for the convenience of all, let it be henceforth given the sobriquet ‘the West Lothian Question’.  And so it was.

‘Devolution is a motorway to a separate state, without an exit,’ Dalyell now says. ‘If that is what people want, they are entitled to vote accordingly. But it will open a Pandora’s Box. For one thing, it will lead to a resurgence of English nationalism. Now some might think this healthy. If you live in Prague wouldn’t you say that Czech nationalism was healthy?  Yet the relations between the Czech Republic and Slovakia get sourer and sourer. It won’t be so different here. When there are differences about resources and money, things will get difficult.’

The only light in the Chess Room is natural and soft, washing in from a leaded window which has a view over the brackish waters of the Thames. The right half of Dalyell’s long, jowly face is cast in shadow, the chiaroscuro emphasised by the dark Pugin panelling beyond it. The left half is topped by thick strands of wavy hair worn in the upturned ice-cream-cone style favoured by Douglas Hurd. Thick, owlish glasses magnify an eye that gleams with the light of intelligence. And there is something about the awkward construction of the jaw on this side of his face that seems to bear testimony to a lifetime of gnawing, gnawing and gnawing again at indigestible political conundrums.

Stuffed as he is with serious purpose, striving as he always does to do the square thing by one and all, Dalyell has become, over the years, a gentleman lacking in the softer emotions. He doesn’t chuckle much. But when he does his whole face creases up and his tongue lolls out of the left side of his mouth. It is a disarming, even charming, trait which seems to morph him, for a delightful instant, into Quentin Hogg.

Dalyell’s natural mode of speech shifts from low and deliberate to conspiratorial and distracted, and is often accompanied by furtive glances over your shoulder and his.  This is not so surprising, considering that he has nearly always been out in the cold politically and, as recently as last autumn, was threatened with deselection over his opposition to the Scottish Bill. But he’s never been one for bowing to pressure and, demoralising though it must be for the Labour whips, there are no inducements or entreaties with which his loyalty can be bought. He’s an old friend of Peter Mandelson, for instance, but it didn’t stop him calling the Minister without Portfolio’s claim that devolution would strengthen Scotland’s position in the United Kingdom ‘utterly preposterous’ and ‘silly’. This, of course, is why Dalyell has never advanced beyond the first unpaid rung of the ministerial ladder – Michael Foot appointed him Labour’s science spokesman in 1980, only to dismiss him two years later after he voted against the Falklands War. Dalyell is 65 now and in all probability he will not stand as an MP again in the next election.

When Tam Dalyell retires, it will be as a strangely successful failure who was one of the most feared, admired and mocked parliamentarians of his generation. He writes obituaries for the Independent, but says he has never been tempted to have a go at his own. Doubtless though, when it is written, it will refer to his having been the last of the great cussed aristocratic MPs in alliance with the proletariat. He will be characterised as a courteous, self-righteous, humourless, free spirit who had a reputation for being a bit cuckoo but also, so self-evidently, a Good Thing. It will conclude that he added to the gaiety of the nation, in an inimitably dour sort of way, but also became its conscience.

Dalyell accepts that, in terms of career advancement, the price for being a crusading politician has been high. ‘Of course it has,’ he says. ‘But, honestly, cross my heart, I never had any prime ministerial ambitions. It would be dishonest, though, to tell you I wouldn’t have dearly loved to have been a minister. Years ago it would have been Northern Ireland – so that I could get British troops out. Now it would be the DTI, with responsibility for science and technology [he has been a weekly columnist for New Scientist for 31 years].  Now, I’m not criticising Tony here because he took the decision that, with the exception of Glenda Jackson, who has just turned 60, he would have nobody in his Cabinet over 60.’ When asked if he thinks this ageist, he gives one of those Francis Urquhart arches of the eyebrow which says, ‘You might think that…’

‘As far as I’m concerned, there is no personal animosity between myself and my colleagues,’ he continues. ‘As it happens, I didn’t vote for Tony Blair. He knows this. I voted for John Prescott. But I get on perfectly well with Blair. Only the other week my wife and I were invited to lunch at Number 10.’  Forget the West Lothian Question; the Eric Morecambe Question is begged. What does he think of the Blair show so far? ‘Hmm. Interesting. I mean he’s got to realise that it’s a parliamentary democracy. My reservation is that he might become too presidential. I’m not criticising. Yet. My worry is that you mustn’t downgrade the Party too much because you will need it, especially in adversity… I thought the Question Time business was high-handed. On the other hand I thought the crucial decision to give the Bank of England its independence was bloody good… Rebranding? Well, I’m ancient Labour. I don’t like branding full stop. It’s no good expecting people to come to Britain to see what a modern society we are. The truth is, people go on holiday for other things. To see heritage. My wife and I went on a 17-day bus tour of Iran last year. Quite bluntly, on holiday you don’t go and see the innovations proclaimed by the Islamic Republic. I went to see the ancient sites.’

Tam Dalyell’s fascination with and expertise on the Middle East dates back to his childhood. In the Thirties his father was the British Resident in Bahrain. ‘Dad was a tough, gentle pillar of Anglo-Indian society,’ he says. ‘He was quite old when I was born, 45, and I was treated as an adult from an early age.’ As an only child, Tam was sent first to Harecroft Hall school in Cumbria, where most of the boys were children of the scientists who worked on the atom bomb programme, and then to Eton. ‘I was also treated as an adult at Eton because at that time it was a very sombre place. It was 1945 and they had taken a hell of a hammering in the war. Many of the masters there had stayed on and some of them were pretty shattered by the losses of their former pupils.’

He’s not sure if this means that he missed out on childhood. ‘There was very little frivolity,’ he reflects. When asked if this has shaped his character, given his reputation as a serious cove, he does the Quentin Hogg chuckle and says, ‘A serious cove. I can’t deny it.’

After Eton, he went up to to read maths at King’s College, Cambridge but two years’ National Service in Germany interrupted this and, when he returned, he decided to change to history – because ‘I was never a budding Einstein’ – and, amazingly, became president of the Cambridge University Conservative Association. School-teaching followed university but there may have been fleeting thoughts of a career in the Army. He had, after all, been a trooper in the Royal Scots Greys, now the Scots Dragoon Guards, the regiment founded in the 1660s by his ancestor Bluidy Tam (whose other claims to historical celebrity included opposing Cromwell in battle, escaping from the Tower of London, and introducing the thumbscrew to Britain).

‘I rather enjoyed my time in the Army,’ Dalyell says, ‘which was perverse of me because I was the despair of every sergeant-major. I waddled. I was very clumsy and only years later, four years ago in fact, did I discover why. I had a hip operation and the surgeon said you have a much longer left leg than right leg.’ He still has a shuffling gait to this day – and still manages to look mildly scruffy in his trademark grey flannel suit, comfortable shoes and ill-fitting navy blue mac. But there was more to his inclusion in the awkward squad than his appearance. ‘I got across people quite badly. I suppose it was partly my own fault. No one is perfect. But I also had alongside me in G Squadron some bloody-minded, awkward contemporaries.’ That’s rich. But there was also the little matter of his losing a Jeep. ‘That was much exaggerated,’ he says. ‘It’s easy to do on Salisbury Plain.’

The Suez Crisis marked his conversion to socialism. But given his obvious affection for the Army – today he is wearing the regimental tie of the Scots Dragoon Guards – it might be supposed that he would have shown, over the intervening years, more sympathy for the armed forces than he has. When it is suggested that he has a reputation for being critical of the services his face darkens. The comment touches an exposed nerve.

‘I have not been involved in criticism of the services,’ he says in an calm and level timbre. ‘I have good relations with my old regiment. Indeed, last summer they invited me to stay with them in Bosnia for a few days. They made me an honorary officer of the mess five years ago. On certain matters, though, I have been high-profile in criticising the actions of politicians in relationship to the services.’  He lists them. First there was his criticism of the Anglo-French Variable Geometry Aircraft. ‘What were we doing starting an expensive programme when the Americans were so far ahead with their F1-11? Absurd.’ Then came the Borneo War. ‘But not a word of criticism about the people who were fighting it. I just thought it would lead to another Vietnam in Asia.’ Next he locked horns with Denis Healey, the then Minister of Defence. ‘The campaign I am proudest of is the saving of Aldabra, an ecologically fragile coral atoll in the Indian Ocean. The Army wanted to desecrate it by building an airstrip on it.’ The Falklands came next. ‘With the arguable exception of the Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Lewin, I never made any criticism of servicemen whatsoever. I just thought the quarrel between two states there was like two bald men fighting over a comb.’

Finally there was the Gulf War. His father, he explains crisply, had worked under Sir Percy Cox, the great imperial proconsul in the Gulf. He knew how, in a bad temper, Cox had drawn a line in the sand to create the state of Kuwait.  ‘Depending on how you look at it,’ Dalyell says, ‘Kuwait is the 19th bloody state of Iraq. I’m not saying the Iraqis should have invaded but there are two sides to the story and the Kuwaitis were extremely provocative. My colleagues say I am naive but if you start a war like this you have to look at the outcome. There was no way that the coalition could have gone on to occupy Baghdad.’

Like Ted Heath before the Gulf War, after it Dalyell went to negotiate with Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister, in 1994. ‘But I wasn’t the creature of Saddam Hussein,’ he protests. ‘I did not tell John Smith before I went to Baghdad. His reaction was, “I’m glad you went. Thank God you didn’t tell me!” He chuckles at this memory. ‘When I came back, a number of rather silly Tories attacked me. But I immediately went to see Douglas Hurd and told him what had happened and his attitude was that I had every right to go – so lay off. I had a soul mate in Ted Heath. I have a soul mate in him in many ways. We always gossip, depending what mood he’s in.’

As was only to be expected – the man is nothing if not consistent – Dalyell was just about the only MP in the House brave enough to fly in the face of public opinion and present the case against bombing Iraq in February. His arguments were politely, ruthlessly terse and were directed on to their target, usually Robin Cook, with the clinical precision of a smart bomb. ‘Are we clear about what would happen if a missile hit a stockpile of nerve gas?’ was one. ‘A million Iranians died in the Iran-Iraq war yet Iran does not want to see a UN attack on Iraq, even though they are the neighbours the attack is supposed to protect: has anyone wondered why?’ was the gist of another, the answer being that the Iranians don’t want their region polluted. Anthrax spores carry on the wind. When asked what on earth he would do to resolve the situation, he answers that we should send a minister to Baghdad. ‘Frankly, I would at least try lifting sanctions by stages, because that might let loose all sorts of forces in Iraq that wished to change the regime… Sanctions strengthen Saddam, rather than weaken him. They allow him to blame anything that goes wrong on the wicked West.’

Taking part in the Commons debate on Iraq in February he pointed out, ‘I am one of comparatively few – a dwindling number of honourable members who have actually worn the Queen’s uniform, done gunnery and experienced the smell of cordite. Perhaps we are a bit less relaxed about unleashing war than those who have never been in a military situation.’ He was one of 25 MPs who voted against military action, compared to 493 ayes. The peaceful outcome later brokered by Kofi Annan gives him little satisfaction, however. ‘I think we’re not out of the woods yet,’ he says. ‘I suspect Madeleine Albright is looking for another excuse to strike. . . I was dismayed by the Labour Party’s enthusiasm for military action, but I can’t say I was surprised.’

Given the current disarray of the official opposition, some commentators believe it is down to Left-leaning elder statesmen such as Tam Dalyell, Gerald Kauffman, Ken Livingstone and Tony Benn to stiffen the prime ministerial sinews and provide the checks and balances that this Government, with its awesome majority, will doubtless need. Dalyell says he will be playing his cards carefully, though.

He voted with the Government on single mothers, for instance.  ‘I don’t think one should rebel on more than one subject at a time,’ he says, ‘because then you’re not taken seriously…  A sense of humour carries a terrible price. It takes so much skill and it is a tremendous temptation to be drawn into playing the fool.’

Whether his views on humour extend to his domestic life is not clear. He, a Presbyterian, has been married to Kathleen Wheatley, the Catholic daughter of a prominent Scottish Labour Lord, for 34 years. It was love, more or less, at first sight when they met in the lobby of the House of Commons: she was with a party of visiting research students from Cambridge and he was given the task of showing them around. He says, rather touchingly, that the secret of their matrimonial longevity, in a profession with such a dodgy track record, is simply love and friendship. ‘My wife is my chum and my friend. I’ve been very lucky. Tolerant is an understatement. The things she has had to put up with when I get my teeth into a campaign!’ Family friends describe Kathleen as long-suffering. She, good-naturedly, goes along with this view. The couple have a son and a daughter and she once commented that when her husband was in London and a child had measles, ‘it would not disturb his train of thought’.

She takes his eccentricities in her stride, too. He eats apples in their entirety, pips and core included, and even finishes other people’s when he sees them being left. His favourite pastime is digging up potatoes; it used to be bee-keeping until he got a stiff dressing-down for missing a vote in the House because his bees had swarmed. His wife also shares the common view that her husband is a bit obsessive.  ‘She tells me if she thinks I’m wrong,’ he says. ‘She has very strong opinions. But obsessiveness? Yes. I will confess to it.  If a cause is worth taking up, it is worth seeing through properly. Doggedness I would also confess to. The term I don’t like is “maverick”. How can I be one when I was the first Scot for 40 years to be elected to the constituency section of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party?’

He does not add, perhaps because it goes without saying, that he was chucked off the NEC after only a year’s tenure because of his un-Leftish support for Europe and nuclear power. As a politician he has been called many things – ‘out of his tiny

Chinese mind’ by Denis Healey, a ‘chump’ by Jim Callaghan –  and most descriptions of him have featured a well-known phrase including the words ‘the’ ‘in’ and ‘pain’. When asked why he thinks it is that, over the years, he seems none the less to have won the grudging respect of friend and enemy alike, he pauses to reflect for a moment. ‘I just don’t indulge in name-calling, I suppose. And I would like to think that I am the second-best-mannered man in the House of Commons. The man with the most beautiful manners is Tony Benn.’

I notice a small, black device on the window ledge. Hmm. Speaking of Tony Benn, doesn’t he always place a tape-recorder next to that of the journalist interviewing him? Has Tam Dalyell, the great conspiracy theorist, one-time confidant of Dick Crossman and the paranoid Harold Wilson, been recording this conversation? He follows my gaze, reaches for the device and clicks it on. It’s a radio, tuned to Radio 4. It’s time for the Scottish Office meeting and, with beautiful manners, Dalyell asks if I intend to return to my office by taxi. Good. Would I mind awfully if I dropped him off on the way? Splendid. Most kind.

This appeared in March 1998. In 2001, Tam Dalyell took over from his soul-mate Ted Heath as Father of the House.