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Tam Dalyell – a life well lived – Scottish Review of Books

The Importance of Being Awkward

Tam Dalyell
Format: Paperback Pages: 320 pages, Illustrations Publisher: Birlinn General Publication Date: 09/08/2012 ISBN: 9781780270890

The Question of Scotland

Tam Dalyell
Format: Paperback Pages: 208 pages Publisher: Birlinn General Publication Date: 01/08/2016 ISBN: 9781780273686
by Jan Rutherford

Tam Dalyell – a life well lived

January 27, 2017 | by Jan Rutherford

Former Labour MP, Tam Dalyell has died after a short illness. He served as MP for 43 years, first for West Lothian and later, when the boundaries were redrawn in 1983,  for Linlithgow. He is well remembered for his battles in the house in the late 1970’s over Devolution and his clashes with Margaret Thatcher on the Falklands War. He was a principled man who gave thought and consideration to the statements he made. In 1977, he voiced what was to become known as The West Lothian Question, in a parliamentary debate (although it was Enoch Powell who coined the term). ‘For how long,’ he asked, ‘will English constituencies and English Honourable Members tolerate at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important and often decisive effect on English politics?’.

He gave most of his life to public service, becoming Father of the House in 2001 and finally standing down in 2005. He was a huge figure in public life in Scotland and spoke regularly at festivals across the country right up until a few weeks before his death. He published two books after that date, the first was The Importance of Being Awkward, 2011 and the second, The Question of Scotland, 2016.

Tam’s towering personality was framed by his generosity — of spirit, of time, of knowledge and understanding that he would share with those around him — and by his enquiring mind, principled stances and endless stories. He was supported for 52 years by his wife Kathleen, ever by his side. Our thoughts are with her and the family.

The two short extracts given below, offer an insight into the man, the politician, and the author.


Extract 1

From a ‘Man of the Union’ (from The Question of Scotland, published in 2016 by Birlinn)

It is best to be candid. By ancestry, by conviction, by emotion and by the practical political and economic realities of the 21st century, I am a ‘Man of the Union’. ‘Unionist’ is a term associated with the Tory Party and refers not to Scotland but to Ireland. I find Nationalism, in general, distasteful. As the late Willie Ross, Secretary of State for Scotland under Harold Wilson, once said, there are only two places for Scottish nationalism—Hampden Park, Glasgow, and Murrayfield, Edinburgh. It was my great-grandfather, twelve times removed, Mr Edward Bruce (died 1611), who was not only the Scottish Ambassador at the Court of St James, but, more importantly, the negotiator, on the Scottish side, as to who was to succeed Elizabeth of England. The Tudor court was, to put it mildly, not the simplest—or safest— of environments. Bruce negotiated, first of all, with Sir Francis Walsingham and, more particularly, his secretary, William Davidson, who had ‘handled’ the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. After Walsingham died, Bruce conferred with Lord Robert Cecil. As one can imagine, the whole issue was delicate in the extreme.

The Earl of Huntingdon had a sounder claim to the throne than the Scottish king. Moreover, Elizabeth did not countenance open discussions of her own demise, least of all in relation to James VI of Scotland, whose mother had been beheaded on her orders. But such was the skill and tact that Bruce displayed in the 1580s and 1590s that the transition in 1603 went smoothly. Bruce went to London in James’s entourage, to become Master of the Rolls, actually a senior civil servant rather than a law officer. He, in turn, took Thomas Dalyell with him. This tough butter merchant and burgess of Edinburgh was his son-in-law who lived in Fetter Lane and he became one of the ‘Hungrie Scots’—Scots who did well out of the fact that the Scottish king ascended the English throne. If you ask me how he made some of his money, the truth could be encapsulated in three words—‘cash for honours’. In 1612, Edward Bruce having died the year before, Thomas returned to Scotland, bought ‘The House and Lands of Bynnis’ from his cousin, a member of the Livingston family, and built most of the house in which I have lived for 83 years—it was the first house to be given to the National Trust for Scotland in 1944, under the Country House Scheme. The late John Smith, the former Labour leader and the person in charge of the failed 1979 Scottish Assembly Bill and legislation in the Commons, came to lunch at The Binns. He gazed up at the portrait of Thomas Dalyell, by the Aberdeen artist George Jamesone, and observed to his daughters, rather drily, ‘He’s the source of all your father’s woes over the parliamentary legislation!’ Thomas’s son, one of few men to have escaped from the Tower of London, General Tam Dalyell, went once a year ‘for to Kiss the King’s hand’ and to gossip as friends in adversity in the 1650s.

Subsequently, the Dalyell family would have nothing to do with the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 and the ill-fated Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745. In the early nineteenth century, Sir John Graham Dalyell, FRS, was a teacher of Darwin, friend of Sir Walter Scott and part of the Scottish Enlightenment, which had, according to the current Professor of Medieval History at the University of St Andrews, Professor Robert Bartlett, taken off shortly after the Act of Union. My grandfather fought at Gallipoli with the 3rd King’s Own Scottish Borderers, whose regimental home is Berwickupon- Tweed and whose company contained many Englishmen from Norham-on-Tweed and Hexham. My father was part of the Raj, his father was British Resident in Kathmandu and their family were functionaries of the East India Company over seven generations. So, by blood and conviction, I am a ‘Man of the Union’.


Extract 2

The ‘West Lothian Question’ in his own words: Tam Dalyell’s account of the 1979 devolution referendum and his enduring legacy, from his autobiography, The Importance of Being Awkward (Birlinn, 2011)
Inextricably and in the public mind, I am linked with the ‘West Lothian Question’. I, like every politician, am a man of some vanity but insufficient vanity to baptise an issue after myself. The circumstances of the birth of the ‘WLQ’—as it has already been styled in examination papers—are as follows.

In 1978, during the passage of the Scotland Bill, on every clause, sub-clause and debatable amendment, I rose in my place and solemnly asked the same question with appropriate variation according to the issue under discussion: ‘How can it be that I can vote on education in Accrington, Lancashire, but not in Armadale, West Lothian?’; ‘How can I vote on health in Blackburn, Lancashire, but not in Blackburn, West Lothian?’; ‘How can I vote on local government in Liverpool but not in Linlithgow, the county town of the area which sent me to the House of Commons?’; ‘How can I vote on X, Y and Z in Whitburn, County Durham, but not Whitburn, West Lothian?’ No doubt pompously and with a sniff of self-righteousness that Smith found insufferable, I would terminate my questions with the repetitive mantra: ‘It cannot be asked too often.’ Eventually, exasperated, Smith exploded from the front bench: ‘Oh, yes, Tam, it bloody well can be asked too often.’

Then up rose the severe and saturnine figure of Enoch Powell. He said that the House had finally grasped what the honourable gentleman for West Lothian was on about (heavy irony). Both Powell and I had read Morley’s Life of Gladstone and knew of the problems caused by the so-called ‘Ins and Outs’, which involved the prospect of nineteenth-century Irish MPs voting on English, Scottish and Welsh affairs even after Ireland had been granted Home Rule. ‘To save time,’ said Powell (the last thing he, as an anti-devolutionist, wanted to do was to curtail proceedings), ‘let us call the gentleman’s point the ‘‘West Lothian Question’’.’ Some days before he died, suffering from cancer of the throat, I went to see Enoch at his home in Eaton Square. In a hoarse whisper, he hissed, ‘I have bequeathed to you the ‘‘West Lothian Question’’.’ And so he had.

My background was crucial in affording me a certain indefinable authority on devolution among my parliamentary colleagues – not least the fact that, by the mid 1970s, I had taken on the SNP and won no fewer than six times in West Lothian. The feeling developed: ‘The fellow can chunter on and on, on the floor of the House, defying party policy, which would normally infuriate us and lead us to a call for his suspension from the Parliamentary Labour Party but hang on a moment – Tam is the fellow who has longest among us fought the SNP threat. And he has published a book on the subject, —Devolution: The End of Britain?— so just perhaps he has thought about it more than most of us!’ I was given the benefit of the doubt. Tom Clarke, MP for Coatbridge, former Minister and Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, viewing SNP success in 2011, with the dismay which was rife amongst Westminster MPs for Scotland, wrote to me on 20 May 2011, saying, ‘You are right about these difficult times. I suspect that there will soon be a demand for a reprint of that famous book —Devolution: The End of the United Kingdom— [sic] by Tam Dalyell.’

A crucial crossroads in the Scotland Bill was the famous (or perhaps infamous) ‘Cunningham amendment’. George Cunningham was the Dunfermline-born Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, although he later defected to the SDP. What we agreed on was this: ‘Every MP knows that the Scotland and Wales Bills are unsatisfactory legislation. But they are justified by the fact that the overwhelming majority demand Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. We are entitled to challenge this so let us propose a 40 per cent hurdle. Most constitutions require this.’ (This meant that 40 per cent of the total Scottish electorate, rather than those actually voting, had to vote ‘yes’ for the Scotland Act to become law.)

In a memorable speech, surprisingly well attended, George Cunningham launched his amendment in the Chamber. To the consternation of the Leader of the House, Michael Foot, and John Smith but not most members of James Callaghan’s government, it passed. Since in the referendum, held on 1 March 1979, this condition was not met, the entire Bill fell and a General Election ensued. I did not get the flak from colleagues that I anticipated. Only Roy Hattersley tartly observed to my face:‘Tam, you do realise that, as a little side effect of your antidevolution campaign, the Labour government fell and Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister?’ It was a comment that was grossly unfair – it was, in fact, the SNP voting with the Tories on a motion of confidence that brought the Labour government down, yet it contained just sufficient truth to make me blush.

With the benefit of hindsight – George Cunningham does not agree —I have come to believe that imposing a 40 per cent hurdle was a mistake. People in Scotland had been used to abiding by simple majorities. Unfortunately, from my point of view but, alas, understandably, the 40 per cent condition was seen as ‘not quite cricket’ by many and ‘downright cheating’ by others. Undoubtedly it cost the ‘no’ campaign votes. How many votes, none of us will ever know. But, in my opinion, it was enough to have given the ‘no’ campaign the probability of outright victory in the popular vote (the actual figures were ‘yes’: 1,230,937 and ‘no’: 1,153,500). Had there been an outright ‘no’, the issue of a Scottish Assembly might have been put to bed for a generation. But, as things turned out, pro-Assembly activists could resort to the emotive and ever-appealing mantra: ‘We was robbed.’

But for the phoenix-like resurrection of the cause for a Scottish Assembly/Parliament there was an altogether more determinant factor than discontent over the Cunningham amendment. This can be encapsulated in just two words: Margaret Thatcher. Had there been a ‘normal’ Tory Prime Minister in the decade of the 1980s I doubt if the pro-Scottish Assembly bandwagon would have got back on the road. Given the passions that were unleashed by Thatcherite policies and given the anti-Scots attitude of some of her favourite ministers, in particular Nicholas Ridley, who had acted as a minister under Ted Heath to close down the Upper Clyde shipyards, it was hardly surprising that the pro-Assembly cause began to thrive again.

Of course, I knew Ridley very well. He had been my fagmaster when I was a newish boy at Eton. As it turned out, my main duty was to go and hold his box of paints, while he was doing beautiful watercolours in Luxmoore’s Garden on the Thames at Eton. Our common art master, Wilfred Blunt, on hearing what I did, retorted, ‘Ridley—more talented than his grandfather.’ His grandfather was Sir Edwin Lutyens, architect of New Delhi and much else. But Ridley, a younger brother of a Northumbrian dynasty, could not conceal his impatience with the Scots, when he was Margaret Thatcher’s Secretary of State for Industry. The North of England, he thought, had better claims to public finance and he railed against the nanny state. Later, when Ridley had an exhibition of his paintings in the upper waiting hall of the Commons, the acerbic Labour MP Peter Snape sidled up to me and expostulated into my ear, ‘How is it that such a bastard can paint so beautifully?’ Ridley told me that he rather enjoyed being called a bastard by Labour MPs and certainly enjoyed baiting his political adversaries.

I recount all this to try to convey the torrid atmosphere among Scots Labour Party members and its consequence of making it extremely difficult for those of us who were against an Assembly to raise our heads above the parapet. Unchallenged, devolution in the Labour Party gained momentum. Actually, had he become Prime Minister in 1992, I think that Neil Kinnock, whose Welsh sinews were anti-devolutionary, would have found ways of stopping the process or, at best, putting it on the proverbial backburner. As it was, John Smith took over and, as he had been the minister responsible for trying to pilot through the 1978 Scotland Act, perhaps he could do little other than talk in terms of ‘unfinished business’

De mortuis nil nisi bonum— [say nothing bad about the dead] but allow me a doubt about my friend John Smith. He was chosen by James Callaghan to do a lawyer’s job in enabling the party policy to go through but whether he actually believed in a Scottish Assembly – as Donald Dewar and many others certainly sincerely did – is a matter of some doubt in my mind. He saw his job as a stepping stone to promotion – which, indeed, he achieved by becoming Secretary of State for Trade. On the morning of his tragic death in 1994, the <em>Independent</em> asked me to do a 3,000-word obituary for the following morning’s paper. In my haste, I cast blunt doubts about Smith’s real belief in devolution. It was never contradicted by anyone. Furthermore, from the day of the failed referendum in March 1979, until 1994 when he died, Smith never gave his considerable mind to the logistics of devolution, or how it would actually work. Honourably, he was focused on achieving a Labour government of the United Kingdom.

My minority view on Smith was shared by my friend Jim Sillars, with whom I had done 18 debates up and down Scotland, on the pros and cons of devolution during the 1979 referendum campaign. Years later, I put the question to Jim Callaghan, by then Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, reminding him that, in 1976, when I was chairman of the Labour Party foreign affairs group, I used to go and see him, as Foreign Secretary, every Wednesday night. On a number of such occasions, I would say to him before I left, ‘Jim, can I talk to you about the Scottish Assembly problem?’ ‘Oh Tam,’ came the reply, ‘don’t bother me with that nonsense – tell me what the party is thinking about Cyprus.’ Lord Callaghan, Delphic and cautious as ever, gave me to understand that he knew that Smith’s heart was not in a Scottish Assembly, let alone a Scottish Parliament.

1979, to the opposition benches, with a majority of more than 20,000. The Labour Party was so concerned that my obduracy to their devolution proposals would lose them the West Lothian seat that, unknown to me, they commissioned a polling firm to do a survey for them which forecast that I would narrowly lose West Lothian. The electorate thought otherwise and gave me a thumping endorsement. Frankly, I have discovered that voters rather like a politician who argues a case in which he obviously passionately believes, regardless of whether they themselves totally share those beliefs. And the West Lothian constituency, more than most, took the view that I might be a bugger but I was their bugger and no one would tell them—the electorate—what to do.

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