The former Labour MP Tam Dalyell has died at the age of 84. Kenneth Roy interviewed him in 1989 for a collection entitled 'Conversations in a small country; what follows is an abridged version of their encounter.
Tam Dalyell has been a master of surprise ever since his student days,
when as chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association
he decided he was in the wrong party.
'How did you end up a socialist? Was it a gradual conversion?'
'It certainly wasn’t Paul on the road to Damascus!' Mr Dalyell laughed
heartily. He had a tendency to use laughter as a weapon.
'I had a lot of left-wing friends. We used to go to each other’s meetings. But the truth is, I was an intervener by nature. The other thing was that I'd probably seen a side of life that a number of my contemporaries from a similar background hadn't, in that I'd been a trooper in the Scots Greys tank crew during my national service. And if one becomes a trooper in a regiment which one's ancestor has founded, and everyone bloody well knows it, one is either broken or one becomes unembarrassable. I’m very unembarrassable!'
'Other than trivial things. I'm sometimes embarrassed about my relations with people if I feel that I've done them a wrong'.
'But that’s all?'
'Yuh. Great strength, actually!'
His soldier ancestor was also a Tam: General Tam, who defeated the
covenanters at Rullion Green and raised the Royal Scots Greys at the Binns, home of the Dalyell family. The present Tam took the salute when the regiment paraded there for the last time in 1971.
'What do you remember of your mother and father?'
I was the only child of relatively elderly parents. My mother was indefatigable. An extremely intelligent woman, a doer of good works. My father came from an interesting family. He was one of those absolutely incorruptible Edwardian Anglo-Indian civil servants, who had followed his father, grandfather and great-grandfather into the Indian political service. Albeit old-fashioned, a man of considerable probity’.
'Do you think he would have approved of your becoming a Labour politician?'
'He was very unpolitical. Definitely not a fan of Baldwin, nor Churchill'.
'What was his ambition for you?'
'He just said gently that he thought the family had had enough of India, that India wasn’t going to last in the way that it had for generations, and that he didn't want me to become an Indian civil servant. He took the view that I really had to make up my own mind but that he would give me the best education that he could'.
'So you were sent to Eton. How did you get on there?'
'Very well, and I’ve kept up with them. I was for a long time the only Old Etonian Labour MP'.
'You became a history teacher at Bo'ness Academy. Were you a good teacher?'
'Yes, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many of those, 25 years later, who are my constituents. I might add, a very good teacher indeed for a lot of pupils. Why? Because I took a lot of trouble over them. I was very formal with them in class, but outside I did all sorts of things. For example, I ran the senior football team. In fact, I became an MP through football’.
Mr Dalyell's running of the team was so successful that the grandfather of one of the boys ('a very difficult youth') decided that the manager should be rewarded. 'He gave me that which he had in his keeping, namely the nomination of his trade union, Nacods, when my predecessor as MP for West Lothian died suddenly. The late Abe Moffat [Scottish miners' leader] did his nut. He had wanted the seat for somebody else'.
And so the young man from the big house, with the top-drawer accent and Eton education, emerged as one of the unlikelier standard-bearers of the Scottish working class. His main opponent, at election after election, was the SNP's Billy Wolfe ('We were to fight seven times. I think we’re in the Guinness Book of Records'.)
It was a grey June morning when we met on the terrace of the House of
Commons. A bitter wind whipped away papers and rattled coffee cups. We
were alone for a while; and then the young nationalist MP Alex Salmond
arrived on the scene with two visitors. There was a brief diversion while Mr Dalyell obliged by taking a group photograph.
'Were you as opposed to Scottish nationalism before you stood for
parliament as you are now?'
'I think you’ve got to get me right on this. Unlike most of my colleagues, I have never in any way abused the nationalists. I have always taken them extremely seriously, and with total courtesy. Look, there are two options. Either we are fully part of the British state or a separate state. What I don't believe in is half-way houses'.
Tam Dalyell's dislike of half-way houses inspired one of the great crusades of his career. In the devolution debate of the late 1970s, he was tenacious in exploiting a flaw in his party's plans for a Scottish assembly: that while, when the assembly came, the same number of Scottish MPs at Westminster would continue to be able to exercise influence on English legislation, English MPs would be denied an equivalent say in Scottish matters. It entered the language as the West Lothian Question.
'Is there anything in your life that’s more important to you than politics?'
'My wife, who is very politically interested, says I’m too obsessed by politics. My family means a helluva lot to me. I'm extremely fortunate in that, for 27 years, I’ve been married to a remarkable woman’. (Kathleen, daughter of the late Scottish judge, Lord Wheatley.)
'How important is religion to you?'
'In a general sense, very important. I'm ecumenical. I was brilliantly taught. I am theologically serious'.
'When you say you're ecumenical, what does that mean?'
'It means I believe in God'.
'Do you think a lot about God?'
He shifted uneasily in his chair.
'I think a lot about ethics', he said quietly. 'You know. Things are either right or wrong'.
'But do you think a lot about God?'
'Look, what are you asking me to say? That I’m a holy man?’ He resorted once more to laughter.
'When were you happiest?'
'The old campaigner gazed out at the river. 'I’m always happy’, he said
slowly. 'I’m a very happy man. I've never been unhappy. But I've been very lucky. I sometimes have a gloomy expression, and I suppose I often get very tired. But happy. Always happy'.