Tam Dalyell on Thatcher and how he'd like to be remembered

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 26 January 2017 in Inside Politics

Read Mandy Rhodes' interview with the former Father of the House from 2013, days after Margaret Thatcher's funeral

Tam Dayell - credit Holyrood/Robin Gillanders

Fifteen pages into Tam Dalyell’s fascinating autobiography, The Importance of Being Awkward – which goes some way to explaining how an old Etonian toff from Linlithgow became a rebellious Labour MP elected to a West Lothian mining constituency – he reveals that his granny, Mary Marjoribanks Askew Robertson, possessed a sex toy.

This unexpected and intimate exposé betrays the fact that even from a very young age, Dalyell was not only blessed with a precocious line in questioning, but that he was also not prepared to let a subject go, just to spare anyone’s blushes.

One of his earliest childhood memories, he says, is sitting on a chair watching his mother going through her own mother’s possessions shortly after she had died. “What’s that,” asked the young Tam, as his mother came across a solid rubber object, some four inches long, with a blown up bubble of solid rubber at one end. 

His mother blushed slightly and said she would tell him one day. Given that she was not a woman normally given to appearing flustered or embarrassed, her perceptive young charge persisted with his inquisition. “But why can’t you tell me now, Mummy?” he demanded. “All right then,” she relented. “It’s an artificial boy’s organ so that my mummy could meet her sexual needs when Grandpa was away at war.”


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It was a practical, matter-of-fact, mature explanation that satisfied in more ways than one but also allowed Dalyell to later question why women of his grandmother’s class and generation did not seek temporary solace in the arms of another.

He found his answer, not in the more romantic explanation of affairs of the heart, but in the rather more pragmatic, uniquely upper crust, view that it would have simply been disloyal to a serving officer.

And it is this pursuit of straight answers to life’s complications that runs through Dalyell, the man, like a rich seam. The Falklands, the Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq, Lockerbie and the West Lothian Question; all the big unanswered issues that he has been associated with during his 43 years as a parliamentarian have been rooted in that simple case of just wanting to know the truth. And in this, his 81st year, while the body may be less able, the mind and the demand to ‘know’ is just as nimble.

Dalyell and I meet just days after the funeral of Margaret Thatcher in the faded grandeur of his ancestral family home, The Binns.

Its an historic pile just outside Linlithgow, with breathtaking views of the Forth and has been in his family since the 17th century but is now in the custody of the National Trust for Scotland, which allows for Tam and his beloved wife of 50 years, Kathleen, to continue to live there, albeit amid laid out cups and saucers and the various NTS signposts that give a clue to the house being open to the public.

Dalyell’s many ancestors are featured in paintings and photographs on the walls, providing a visual history of centuries past, while Tam adds to this sense of history by littering his conversation with names like Gladstone, Macmillan, Gaitskell, Wilson, Healey and the like. He himself, refuses to be photographed, questioning why anyone would be interested “in an old man staring blankly into space”.

Being old, is not how Dalyell would care to be remembered and nor is he, he says, to be referred to as a ‘National Treasure’ although he does concede that he is probably what could be respectfully termed an ‘Ancient’.

Dalyell will always, however, be seen as the political terrier who once he got his teeth into something, wouldn’t let go. And he believes he unwittingly, and prematurely, marked his own parliamentary career card as a ‘pain in the neck’ when in the immediate aftermath of winning the West Lothian seat in 1962, he was asked by a reporter whether he was “going to raise hell in London about Scottish unemployment” to which he replied, “yes”, prompting a headline of ‘Dalyell - the Hell-Raiser’ and in so doing, inadvertently upset all the other Scottish Labour MPs who, by implication, had not been doing enough to raise the issue. It was a label that stuck.

“I was branded one of the awkward squad, but I was never awkward once just for the sake of being awkward,” he says. “Of course, one does drift into certain things but I won’t be called a maverick because that is not true. It may seem arrogant in excelsius but I had a rule that I never rebelled on subjects that I knew less about than my colleagues. So, for instance, if anybody said I should kick up the traces on immigration then frankly, MPs who represented Bradford or Wolverhampton, may well have asked ‘what the hell did I know about it in West Lothian’ and they would have been right so in subjects where I thought my colleagues knew more or as much as I did then I would go with the party but where I knew more than them then I would or could go my own way.”

Dalyell entered parliament in 1962 when Winston Churchill was still an MP, he survived 11 general elections and served under eight prime ministers but it was Margaret Thatcher that he most crossed swords with, particularly over the Falklands War.

After his accused her of ‘fibbing’ over the sinking of the Belgrano or more correctly, as he tells me, her knowledge of the Peruvian peace proposals, they didn’t speak for 17 years. She famously dubbed him a member of the ‘awkward squad’ and while he tells me that now is not the time nor the place to show disrespect for someone who has just died, he also says he has no desire to forgive nor forget.

“On the day of her funeral, as you can imagine, I was asked by many people for comment and I am afraid my reaction was silence because I wasn’t going to perjure myself and it is rather ill fitting in the week of a person’s funeral to start but I can say that her legacy was absolutely disastrous – it was the deindustrialisation of Britain but she can also be blamed for the whole constitutional situation we now find ourselves in.

“In one sense, her legacy was devolution and the creation of the Scottish Parliament and I seriously feel that in 1979, had there been a ‘normal’ Conservative Prime Minister; had it been, as it might have been, Willie Whitelaw, or could have been Francis Pym, or James Prior, then the whole argument about devolution would have been put to bed then but because of Margaret, it was impossible for any of us who were against the Scottish Assembly to really argue the case because we were told – and it would have been right in a  sense – that we were helping Mrs Thatcher to get her way.”

Despite his protestations about providing support to Thatcher, Dalyell is probably best know for his objections to devolution and in the late 1970s, when Labour began to advocate a degree of devolution for Scotland, he was an early and persistent critic.

And he reveals that, astonishingly, his own party was so exasperated by his opposition that in 1978, it paid for secret polling in his own constituency to determine whether it was worth trying to oust him at the next election. Dalyell found out about the covert operation because one of his constituents spilled the beans and said he had been polled.

“It is extraordinary,” he laughs. “And I don’t know to this day who took the decisions to do this, although I suspect it was Donald Dewar’s handiwork – but Mandy, I am not in the least astonished this was done – and in the event, my majority was more than 20,000, which was the highest in Scotland. I think there were several elements in this and it wasn’t entirely the future constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom. 

"I think there were a lot of people that may have said, ‘well, the man’s a bugger but he is our bugger so let’s just keep him’ but also in those days, there were a great many people that actually thought the same way as Tam Dalyell.”

During parliamentary debates on devolution, Tam would repeatedly ask a simple question, phrased in slightly different ways, which was basically why could he, as a Scottish MP, vote on education and health matters relating to England but not do so in Scotland and more particularly, in his own constituency of 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.” And it was Enoch Powell who eventually said in 1977: “To save time, let us call the gentleman’s point the ‘West Lothian Question’ and for many, it is that phrase, coined by Powell that has become synonymous with Dalyell’s objection to what he saw as an anomaly of devolution.

I wonder why an educated man like Dalyell, who transferred his political allegiance from the Conservatives – he had been chairman of the Conservative Association at Cambridge – and switched to Labour in 1956, after the Suez crisis and in protest at the disproportionately high unemployment rates in Scotland, whose own party briefed against him on the question of devolution and one whose family history is so rooted in Scotland, is so adamant in his opposition to more powers for Scotland.

“John Stuart Mill had a phrase for it ‘the deep slumber of decided opinion’,” he says. “I fear that I had that decided opinion and have not woken up from the slumber.

“The serious answer is that I had read John Morley’s Life of Gladstone and all about the Irish and the ins and out and so on and what I got from it was that once an assembly was established that, understandably, they [the politicians] would ask for more and more and never be content and so it has proved. And it’s not only the SNP but it is Labour, Liberals, Annabel Goldie and all, that want more and why? Because they are there. That is the nature of politicians.

“I repeatedly go back to the case of Barbara Castle who, in 1971, went on the Today programme with the late Brian Redhead to say George Morgan Thomson, later to be a European Commissioner and head of ITV and MP for Dundee, the late Dr Dick Mabon and Tam Dalyell, were traitors to the Labour Party because we were going into the same lobby as Edward Heath in order to go into the European Community, and I have nothing against Barbara and in her memoirs, she refers to the ‘nice Tam Dalyell’ but anyhow, five years later, James Callaghan decided that he didn’t want her in the Cabinet but as she was very much the leading lady of the party, she had to be given a consolation prize and that was leading the first Labour delegation to the directly elected European Parliament.

"So Barbara arrives in Brussels and my god, not within months but in weeks, she was saying the Parliament must have more powers – having absolutely not wanted it in the first place and why the change of mind? Because Barbara was there, that is why.

"So I can understand that they want more and more fiscal powers and I am not arguing about peripheral powers, like firearms, etc but when it comes to fiscal powers and tax then you are talking about the dismantling of the UK tax system and that is the dismantling of the UK, which is what I have always thought would happen.

“Why do I want the keep the United Kingdom? I’ll tell you why, because I believe that bigger countries, particularly in this century and the last, are much more satisfactory than smaller countries. And in smaller countries, where everybody knows each other, it can lead, as in the case of Lockerbie, to a situation where all these lawyers and in the Crown Office and so on, all know each other and don’t want to upset each other.

"So I am against small administrations as such. I also have a view of Scotland which is that it is a number of very different places and my constituents were never better served than with Lothian Region and I thought Strathclyde Region had many merits and if you talk to the people in the islands, they will agree to that and I am sure Glasgow would rather be run from Glasgow than Edinburgh and Aberdeen is basically the centre of Grampian and they have a life of their own up there and equally, Inverness is different again.

“I am a powerful ally of local government and local authorities providing services and having as much freedom as possible to do what they want and above that, I would have the government at Westminster. I am not in any way disparaging those that have gone to the Scottish Parliament or in any sense ya booing them and a lot of them are friends of mine but I do not want a parliament in Edinburgh and it is in the nature of human beings that now it’s there people want more.”

It is also true to say that Dalyell’s family history is literally woven into the very fabric of the Union. One ancestor, Thomas Dalyell, who’s wealth from butter manufacturing was responsible for building The Binns, actually travelled to London with James VI and his entourage to negotiate the terms of the Union which gives some strength to his arguments to independence. How does he feel about next year’s referendum?

“I am against it. I am against referendums in the sense that referendums are never about exactly what they purport to be about and if there was a referendum, as there will be in 2014, I fear it will be greatly about the popularity or unpopularity of Messrs Cameron and Osborne and all sorts of other extraneous matters and a lot of people will vote, not because they are concerned about the main issue, which is the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom. It’s folly to go down this route and I’m against the dismantling of the UK.

“It’s true to say that I  respect Alex Salmond and in the years that I was Father of the House from 2001-2005, if I had been asked to name the five most effective MPs including ministers then Salmond would have been one of them.

“Remember, I was the Scottish MP who did not sign the Claim of Right and so [was] regarded as a no hoper from the word go in terms of devolution and independence but on the basis that you can totally disagree with somebody and still have decent personal relations with them, Alex and I do get on but only have discussions with each other on things we agree about.

“Of course, I don’t think it goes down very well with some of my colleagues that I have said I like Alex Salmond but there is a complication here that Alex and I are both ‘black bitches’ [a phrase used to describe people from Linlithgow] and it was also his mother, bless her heart, who kindly bound up my hand when, as a teenager, a cricket ball with a blistering drive from the late Malcolm Ford bruised my hand. It was bloody sore and bless her, she had been out walking and watched us playing cricket and came to my aid and bound up my hand so I am very grateful to Mrs Salmond.

“I also knew Alex as a cheeky, bumptious but clever pupil at the local school who would ask me lots of questions as the visiting MP.

“We also cooperated very strongly on the Iraq war. I believed that Blair had twisted the intelligence and I am so angry with Blair that I can’t contain it, especially now one knows that what I always suspected was true but found it difficult to prove. I was the ringleader that voted against the war in February and I am still unspeakable on the subject of Blair, and Alex and I were very close on this.”

It is probably because of his opposition to the invasion of Iraq that Dalyell’s name was never put forward for the House of Lords. Although, in the event, he says he would not have taken up the offer anyway. Not out of any sense of principle but simply, “after 43 years travelling up and down to London I did not wish at my age to be at Edinburgh Airport security desk at six in the morning with shoes off and trousers down.”

Aside from Iraq, Dalyell is best known for his unwavering belief that Libya was not responsible for the Lockerbie atrocity 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.

He supported Kenny MacAskill’s controversial decision to not only visit the one man convicted of the bombing in prison but also to free the terminally ill Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi in 2011 on the grounds of compassion.

“I am unapologetic of my 20 years of pursuit on Lockerbie because I think Megrahi had nothing whatsoever to do with it and was a sanctions buster for Libyan airlines and the oil industry and I am extremely angry with the Crown Office. It should not have suppressed evidence to Megrahi’s defence team and so while it is true that you say that devolution meant he could ultimately be released, my problem with devolution, in this case, was that the lawyers and the Crown Office were all too chummy and that wouldn’t have happened in England. There are so many ifs and buts...and this remains unfinished business for me.”

I ask Dalyell how he keeps faith in a political system where his own party briefs against him, he has leaders he can’t trust, where institutions collude and when politicians actively suppress intelligence?

“Well, because I have had a very high regard for a number of leaders in the Labour Party and I go back to Gaitskell. I think probably Wilson was a better Prime Minister than Gaitskell would have been which is a minority opinion but on form, Harold was very clever, he was chatty and he wanted to do the best for people. I was also a genuine friend of Jim Callaghan although I exasperated him sometimes and I voted for Michael Foot as leader against him.

"That was the occasion Katherine was the angriest she has been with me. It was daft of me, actually. Why did I do it? Really,  because I had a fit of pique ... Denis had said that Frank Allaun and I had tiny Chinese minds which was all to do with some issues around foreign policy and east of Suez and the rest of it and it had annoyed me. Stupid, really. I was annoyed with Denis and I thought also, genuinely, that at that moment he would have split the Labour Party and I think, probably, I was wrong in that and that is one of my regrets.

"But I should tell you that Denis Healey is a friend of ours and in fact we went for lunch with him and Edna at Alfriston a few years before Edna died and she said that I had many arguments with Denis and on almost every occasion I had been right in the long term and Denis smiled and said ‘yes’.”

It’s interesting that Dalyell’s faith in his party and politics remains very much referenced by the past and I wonder what he makes of today’s generation of politicians.

“Now, Mandy, I’m careful about being an old gentleman with a stick waving it at the new generation and I do think things are much more difficult now with the 24-hour media and so on and having to give these instant judgements but I can’t abide this professional politician thing. This is something I feel very strongly about and when I became an MP there was only person in 1962 in the Parliamentary Labour Party for whom it was said he knew nothing other than politics and his name was Carol Johnson. He had been secretary of the PLP and was rewarded at a by-election in Lewisham.

"Everybody else then had a background other than politics but nowadays so many of them go from university, to parliamentary researcher, to special adviser and then into Holyrood or into Westminster and are catapulted up the tree. This is why I have a high regard for people like Neil Findlay [Lothian list MSP] who is a very interesting guy. He was a very young chairman of my constituency group and he has worked on a building site and done all sorts of jobs and is thoroughly useful but those that have known nothing other than politics have problems and that goes for Miliband, Cameron, Osborne, all of them.

“Ed Miliband was number five on my list for leader. Who was number one? I’ll give you a truthful answer but before that, I would say that had I been an MP then, I would have organised one candidate that had grown up in the trade union movement but if you ask me who I voted for number one, it was Diane [Abbott].

"Did I think Diane would be a good Prime Minister? It would have been a rough ride. But do I think Diane would have been a good leader of the opposition – yes, I do, so I don’t think that was entirely daft.

"Number two on my list was Andy Burnham because I had been told by some Lancashire friends of mine that he was very good, three was David Miliband and four was Ed Balls because I think he’s...well, he’s calmed down a bit and fifth was Ed Miliband. Now maybe my record in voting for leaders is not that good. I didn’t vote for Tony Blair, I voted for John Prescott and I don’t think that was so daft because had he had the back up of Sir Robin Butler in Downing Street and other senior civil servants a lot of the fiascos that did happen would not have happened.

"My ideal choices over time would have been a bit different, certainly, and actually, had the man that became Attorney General, a man called, John Morris who was a very able Welshman, been the leader and not Neil Kinnock, I think we would have won in ‘92 but I also think Neil would have been a good Prime Minister.

“What do I think it takes to be a good Prime Minister? Gravitas, and what I really admire is the ability to take unpalatable decisions.”

Surely that’s exactly what his nemesis, Margaret Thatcher did?

“… no, I don’t think the decisions she took were unpalatable...to her. I thought she took decisions in the interests of her own nostrums.”

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