Time’s up for Tam

 

© BBC

 

It’s fair to say that the state of modern British politics is dire.  Desperate for a trade deal that might punt a little money the way of post-Brexit Britain (and desperate to show that the country still has friends on the international stage and isn’t a global Billy No-Mates), our Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has just hobnobbed in Washington DC with President Donald Trump.  Trump is a man whose idea of a successful trade deal is to make sure he ends up with all the money in his pockets and the other guy is left with a big, fat, humiliating zero – he wrote a book with Tony Schwartz in 1987 called The Art of the Deal but it should really have been titled The Art of the Steal.  So I suspect that Theresa’s attempted wooing of the Trumpster isn’t going to end well.

 

Meanwhile, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is an oaf whose ideas about how to make friends and influence people involve such antics as going to France and cracking jokes about World War II punishment beatings.  And the British Labour Party seems to have given up on providing any meaningful opposition to May, Johnson and co and has gone from setback to disaster to catastrophe to apocalypse.  Instrumental in this has been the woeful leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.  Ethically, I don’t think Corbyn is a bad bloke, but he seems to have the management skills of a drunk chimp.

 

This makes me nostalgic for an older era of British politics when at least a few politicians managed to combine intelligence with conviction.  One such person was Tam Dalyell, Member of Parliament for West Lothian and then Linlithgow for over forty years, who died a few days ago at the age of 84.

 

Tam had a privileged background.  He spent his childhood in a grand Scottish mansion near the Firth of Forth and inherited a title, the Baronetcy of Dalyell, from his mother’s side of the family.  He got much of his education at Eton College and Cambridge University, whilst doing national service with the Royal Scots Greys for a period between the two institutions.  Significantly, he didn’t get through officer training and ended up serving as a common soldier.

 

Later, he taught for three years at Bo’ness Academy, near to his family home, and he also wrote a column for the New Scientist magazine.  This interest in science was just one example of his eclecticism – he’d started off studying mathematics at university, then changed to history and then done an additional degree in economics.

 

Despite his well-heeled origins – which gave him a rather languid, aristocratic air – Tam was left-wing in his politics and when he became a Member of Parliament it was for the Labour Party, not the Conservatives.  Not that Labour Party leaders had less reason to curse him than Conservative Party ones had, for when it came to being a contrarian Tam was in a league of his own.  Whenever he got his teeth into an issue he felt was worth fighting for, he didn’t release it in a hurry and didn’t give a damn whom he annoyed.

 

An early cause was the injustice wreaked upon the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, whom the British evicted between 1968 and 1973 to clear the way for the establishment of an American military base there.  He was also a thorn in the side of the 1970s Labour government when it tried, then unsuccessfully, to introduce devolved governments for Scotland and Wales.  Tam’s argument was that the devolution proposals made Britain’s system of government unfair and unbalanced.  It would be wrong to still have Scottish MPs present in Westminster influencing decisions that affected England, if there was a Scottish parliament in Edinburgh making decisions affecting Scotland that English MPs had no influence over at all.  Four decades later, the UK has a devolved system of government and the conundrum identified by Tam – which became known as the West Lothian Question after the name of his old constituency – has never been satisfactorily addressed.

 

Elsewhere, Tam’s role as a one-man awkward squad knew no bounds.  He spent years hounding Margaret Thatcher’s government about the General Belgrano, the Argentinian warship sunk with heavy loss of life by British forces during 1982’s Falklands War.  The Belgrano had been torpedoed outside, not inside, the 200-mile-radius Exclusion Zone established by Britain around the Falkland Islands as the war’s official combat zone.  He also questioned the verdict of the Lockerbie Bombing trial, the legitimacy of the first Gulf War and of military intervention in Kosovo, and the justification for invading Iraq in 2003.  Indeed, the Iraq fiasco prompted him to brand his then party leader and Prime Minister Tony Blair a war criminal and he came close to having the Labour Party whip withdrawn, i.e. he was nearly kicked out of the party.

 

Needless to say, Tam blew his chances early on of being considered for a ministerial position and high office.  He got as far as being Parliamentary Private Secretary to the minister Richard Crossman in the 1960s.  But I suspect he was happier sitting on the back benches, being a pain in the neck.

 

After retiring as an MP in 2005, one way in which Tam kept himself busy was by writing obituaries – often for people from Scottish political backgrounds such as Sam Galbraith, Bruce Millan and Albert McQuarrie – for the Independent newspaper.  His obituaries were erudite and gracious towards political friends and foes alike.

 

I recall one obituary Tam penned a few years ago about Margo MacDonald, the formidable one-time Scottish National Party MP (and later an independent Member of the Scottish Parliament).  Tam concluded by sheepishly admitting that he’d liked Margo so much that, despite his credentials as a long-time opponent of Scottish self-government and her credentials as a long-term supporter of it, he’d gone and voted for her in the last Scottish parliamentary elections.  More evidence that right to the end Tam Dalyell was his own man.

 

© The Independent

 

That didn’t take long

 

(c) Daily Record

 

I hadn’t expected the promises made by David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to amount to the proverbial hill of beans.  I’m talking, of course, about the promises of new powers being devolved to Scotland in the event of a ‘no’ vote in the Scottish-independence referendum on September 18th; which the three Unionist party leaders made a few days before the referendum in a fit of panic when opinion polls suggested the ‘yes’ vote was nudging past the ‘no’ one.  What does surprise me is the speed with which, after the referendum returned a result of 45% in favour of independence and 55% against it, the promises of the Three Stooges, or the Three Unwise Men, or whatever you want to call them, have started to be reneged on.

 

(One reason for not believing any of this – which the Labour-supporting Scottish tabloid the Daily Record rather desperately splashed on its front page as THE VOW – was the involvement of Nick Clegg.  Anyone who, over the past few years, has followed the behaviour of the Liberal Party leader / facilitator-of-the-current-Conservative-government-in-London will know that any pledge with his signature on it is not worth the paper it’s written upon.  Check the following link for details:

 

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/sep/19/nick-clegg-apologies-tuition-fees-pledge)

 

However, barely had the last vote been counted in the referendum and it became clear that the United Kingdom was safe for a little while longer, David Cameron announced that any new powers for Scotland would have to be linked to some new powers for England: namely, an end to the anomaly whereby Scottish MPs are able to vote in the House of Commons on matters pertaining only to England, while English MPs are unable to vote on ones pertaining to Scotland – because most of those decisions are now made 400 miles north in the devolved Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.

 

Ed Miliband must’ve popped a few blood vessels when he heard Cameron come out with that.  If Labour win the 2015 general election, it may well be by only a slim majority, leaving Ed dependent on the 40-odd Labour MPs that are usually returned by Scotland to get his legislation passed in the House of Commons.  If those MPs are barred from voting on English matters, Ed could be in the embarrassing position of being a British Prime Minister who’s unable to legislate for 85% of the British population – i.e. the English.  (He won’t be able to legislate for Scotland either, because its parliament is currently in the hands of the Scottish National Party and will be at least until 2016.)

 

Now it looks like those promises are likely to disappear down a hole while the Westminster-based representatives of the Conservative and Labour Parties engage in a kerfuffle about who said what and who promised what.  It certainly wasn’t the case – as stated clearly in THE VOW on the Daily Record’s front page – that the Scottish parliament would be “strengthened with extensive new powers, on a timetable beginning September 19th.”  The 19th had come and gone and all we’ve seen is Tory-Labour squabbling.  Hardly seemly for two parties who, until a few days ago, were assuring us that we were all ‘better together’.

 

Actually, I expect the issue will finally be kicked into the long grass and forgotten about while the Westminster political and media establishments find other, more reassuringly-familiar things to obsess about, like the upcoming Clacton by-election and the possibility of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) winning its first seat in the House of Commons, and then next year’s general election.

 

By the way, I can understand English people’s annoyance at the current conundrum.  If I were English, I’d be pissed off that Scottish MPs can enjoy a say over my country’s affairs, when my own MPs have no say over theirs.  This is the old ‘West Lothian Question’, which was first raised in 1977 by the distinguished Labour Party politician Tam Dalyell and which seems more pertinent than ever today.  Old Tam is not just a rare example of a fine Labour mind, he’s also an even rarer example of a fine Scottish Labour mind.  Just yesterday, Tam told the BBC’s Kirsty Wark: “I think it would be wrong in principle for a Labour government to impose – because that’s the correct word – legislation in England using a Scottish majority, where those Scottish MPs had absolutely no say in their own place…  I think he’s (Miliband’s) got to face up to it that it is deeply wrong to try to pretend that Scottish MPs should vote decisively on English affairs.”

 

However, the fact remains that Cameron, Miliband and Clegg promised the Scots those powers at a time when there seemed a possibility of the ‘yes’ side winning narrowly.  It didn’t in the end, but it would’ve done with a six-percent swing of the vote.  Now I’m sure that among the 55% of Scottish voters who ultimately voted ‘no’, there were a lot, probably a majority, who felt British, wanted to stay in the United Kingdom, hated the concept of Scotland becoming independent, didn’t care about extra powers being handed over to Edinburgh and maybe didn’t want a parliament, even a devolved one, in Edinburgh in the first place.  But I’m also sure there were a number of folk swithering between voting ‘yes’ and voting ‘no’, who were ultimately swayed to the ‘no’ side by THE VOW.  As many as six percent?  Quite possibly.  Which makes the prevarications happening now in Westminster deeply wrong from a Scottish point of view.

 

Mind you, a lot of people voted ‘yes’ precisely because they regarded the political hacks of Westminster as a shower of corrupt, untrustworthy sleazebags whom Scotland was better off shot of.  What has happened since September 18th has probably not done anything to change that opinion.

 

Mourning Margo

 

(c) The Daily Record

 

Spring 2014 is not proving to be a good season for the remaining handful of British politicians who choose to show an independent cast of mind and follow their own consciences, rather than obsequiously toe a party line – even if such independence and integrity costs them a lucrative political career and dooms them to a lifetime of outsider-status.

 

A few weeks back, the venerable socialist Tony Benn shuffled off this mortal coil.  Ostracised by his own Labour Party in the 1980s while it was bidding to make itself ‘electable’, Benn’s left-wing zeal now seems refreshingly honest and honourable, especially when it’s measured against the cynicism and opportunism of those who rose to power in Labour after he’d been shunted into the sidings – that of the notorious trough-feeder Neil Kinnock and of the even more loathsome Tony Blair.

 

Then, last week, there was the news that Margo MacDonald, the one-time Scottish National Party MP and more lately an independent member of the Scottish Parliament, had succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, against which she’d been battling for many years.

 

Margo became an MP in November 1973 at the age of 30, after winning the Glaswegian constituency of Govan for the SNP in a by-election.  Her victory was memorable because it shattered the Labour Party’s assumption that the vote in urban working-class Scotland would always be in its pocket.  It was memorable too because Margo’s background was anything but the norm for a Westminster MP.  She was a mother of two who’d never been to university.  She’d trained as a Physical Education teacher but had more recently been working as a barmaid.

 

She lost the seat the following year, though.  This was seemingly a harbinger of how the fortunes of the SNP, and the morale of Scotland generally, would deflate during the second half of the 1970s, culminating in the travesty of the 1979 Scottish devolution vote (a majority voted for a devolved Scottish parliament but due to backroom politicking it wasn’t delivered) and then the Westminster ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher (who seemed happy to run Scotland like it was a colonial territory).  I’ve seen a depressing clip of Margo campaigning in 1978, trying to engage some miserable-looking people who were clearly suffering from a massive dose of the Scottish cringe.  One woman started heckling her, lamenting that Scotland could never survive as an independent country because all it would be fit to do would be to ‘pump oil.’  Oh aye, pumping oil.  That’d be fatal for a country’s economy…

 

But thanks to her gregarious personality and many media appearances – she was on TV a lot and, if memory serves me correctly, she even had regular columns in the fervently pro-Labour Daily Record and Sunday Mail newspapers – she stayed in the public consciousness.  When the Scottish Parliament was finally set up – 20 years late, many would grouse – she was a shoo-in as one of the new MSPs.  By now her days as the SNP’s bubbly and Abba-esque ‘blonde bombshell’ were behind her.  She’d matured into a doughty and formidable matriarch.  Fond of a laugh, but plain-speaking and at times bloody-minded, she was somebody you’d love to love to have as a pal, but at the same time you really didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.  I suspect she was most Scottish people’s notion of what the ideal mum would be like.

 

Her relationship with the SNP ended acrimoniously in 2003.  She didn’t get on with the party’s ultra-cautious then-leader John Swinney and she was eventually expelled.  However, she seemed more than happy to re-invent herself as an independent and the people of Lothian region were more than happy to re-elect her to the Scottish Parliament as such.

 

Her maverick status paralleled that of her second husband, the one-time SNP MP Jim Sillars, who ended up having his own feud with the party and headed off to plough his own lonely furrow.  Indeed, Sillars, who in the late 1980s had been ubiquitous on the Scottish political scene, seemed to vanish entirely off the radar for a while.  (With the Scottish independence vote this September approaching, I’m pleased to say that Jim Sillars has been visible again of late.  A few weeks ago, I saw him take part in a televised debate about independence with the preening and increasingly ludicrous George Galloway.  Sillars quietly made mincemeat of Galloway, whose only way of dealing with criticism and argument these days is to shout, “That’s nonsense on stilts!”)

 

Being an independent MSP – albeit one still committed to independence, as she’d been in her SNP days – suited Margo down to the ground and it allowed her to get on with her own personal campaigns. She tried to get to the bottom of the fiasco surrounding the construction of the new Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh, a project that ended up costing £414 million, about ten times its original estimated price, and that nearly wrecked the credibility of the parliament as an institution before it’d properly started operating.  She fought for the rights and safety of workers in Scotland’s sex industry at a time when the police’s policy seemed to be to turn them out onto the streets.  And she championed an Assisted Suicide Bill to permit the terminally ill in Scotland to end their lives at their own choosing – a cause that’d come increasingly close to her heart after she was diagnosed as having Parkinson’s disease in the late 1990s.

 

Her death a few days ago brought tributes from across the political spectrum.  Even Alan Cochrane, the Daily Telegraph’s rabidly independence-hating Scottish correspondent, penned a moving eulogy to her – although I suspect that if Margo had read his previous column (in which Cochrane used a tragedy at an Edinburgh school where a 12-year-old pupil had been killed by a collapsing changing-room wall as an excuse to condemn the Scottish Parliament), she’d have run him down with the mobility scooter she’d been using towards the end of her life and then drove it over the top of his head.  Meanwhile, she was also the subject of an obituary written for the Independent newspaper by the lugubrious, fiercely-his-own-man and much-loved former Labour MP Tam Dalyell.  Actually, in this post-Benn, post-MacDonald era, Tam is possibly the last of the Mohicans.

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/margo-macdonald-politician-whose-popularity-crossed-party-boundaries-thanks-to-her-infectiously-enthusiastic-personality-9240081.html

 

Dalyell concluded his piece by admitting that, in the last Scottish election, he’d actually voted for her.  What, Tam Dalyell voting for a pro-Scottish-independence politician?  Only Margo could do that.

 

Here she is, by the way, speaking at the pro-independence rally on September 22nd, 2012: