I enjoyed Tom Chidwick's article (27 January
) about Tam Dalyell. His quote from The Times'
obituary that described Tam as 'a serious-minded man who was little given to small talk' triggered a fond memory for me. I travelled from Heathrow to Edinburgh regularly on the same Thursday evening British Midland flight that Tam used when returning from parliament to Linlithgow. Tam used to sit in row 1 beside random strangers. He always had a pile of newspapers on his lap. I often observed him tiring of the conversation of whoever was in the next seat. To bring the pleasantries to an end, Tam would pointedly pick up a paper and hand it to his neighbour with a polite 'have you read today's Times
?' The rest of the journey passed in silence.
Tam Dalyell was indeed a fine parliamentarian – I only wish I was one of those journalists who keep diaries as I spent those West Lothian Question years sitting in the press gallery listening to him. But I am not. So good luck to Tom Chidwick in his foray into the past. But down that Google rabbit hole, if he trolls through the pages of The Herald
of the day, he will find what I and the late Stuart Trotter reported.
Stuart, were he still around, could put him straight on many things of that debate at Westminster as he was a far more serious student of politics than I ever pretended to be. My attitude was much more flippant. Tam on his feet espousing some cause, and there were many, always made me think of that Noel Coward song about Alice. Tam was at it again. Nice subject for a sketch. Stuart understood the West Lothian Question and even had answers of his own.
I fell foul of Tam once. I got a book he had written about devolution to review which I duly did in glowing terms – it was a very good read and worth anybody's money, not something one can say of most politicians' books. However, it wasn't a review on the book pages but an op-ed feature – that is the copy that appears on the page opposite the one on which the leaders appear – and as part of it I mentioned that Tam was indeed a man of parts.
Having consulted the cuttings – and there were loads of them – for causes Tam had raised, I discovered one was euthanasia and included it in the list. He had. This set those who disapprove of euthanasia off assailing their MP with protests, to Tam denying in the face of all the evidence that he had ever done any such thing. The result was that a Letter to the Editor from Tam disowning supporting euthanasia had to appear in order to shut him up – or calm him down. He hadn't supported it. He had, as he did with loads of things from the Belgrano to Lockerbie, to some arcane point of parliamentary procedure, raised the issue. It was, of course, a storm in a tiny teacup and Tam remained perfectly affable – the review was good enough to have sold a few copies after all.
It always seems that things are better in the past but it is hard today to think of backbenchers like Tam: men and women who could command the House and fill the press gallery just in case they said something worth reporting. Nobody reports backbenchers any longer.
Tam wasn't a great orator, but he was a dogged one, a debater with a command of his facts and unquestionably a man of principle – he was also an old Etonian who could string a sentence together. Tom Chidwick has a terrific cast of parliamentary players to write about as well as Tam.
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