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