The Importance of Being Awkward: the Autobiography of Tam Dalyell

Always his own man.

The Importance of Being Awkward: the Autobiography of Tam Dalyell
Tam Dalyell
Birlinn, 288pp, £25

On paper at least, Tam Dalyell ought to have been a Tory. He is, after all, descended from a long line of Scottish gentry, and was brought up in the magnificent House of the Binns overlooking the Firth of Forth and educated at Eton. He was even, briefly, chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association, but soon switched to Labour. Two issues, he says, tipped him in the other direction: Suez and unemployment.

Elected to parliament at the age of 29, he remained there for 43 years, an immovable, magnificent fixture on the back benches whose interventions upset Labour and Tory ministers in equal measure. "Eton gave me the confidence to be awkward," he writes - an attribute he deployed to maximum advantage in pursuit of a wide range of good causes, from the obscure to the earth-shattering.

The other great advantage of Eton was that he knew everybody. From the outset, elected in an age of deference when young backbenchers were expected to know their place, he never hesitated to take his opinions to the top. It did not endear him to his political masters, but it often produced results.

Politically it is difficult to categorise Dalyell. Initially a fan of Hugh Gaitskell, pro-Common Market and a lifelong enthusiast for nuclear power, he gradually drifted leftwards. By 1981 he was supporting Tony Benn against Denis Healey (oddly, he makes no reference to this); he was even elected to Labour's National Executive Committee on a leftist slate, but essentially he remained his own man.

Once his attention had been engaged by a problem, Dalyell did not easily let go. In the land of the soundbite, he who can concentrate is king. Persistence, careful homework and an occasional tendency to go over the top are the hallmarks of his career. As befits a man of his pedigree, he was unfailingly courteous towards those who took a different view from his, but never hesitated to go for the jugular when the need arose. Four times (Dennis Skinner has done it only once) he had his membership of the Commons suspended, on two occasions for calling the prime minister a liar. How does he square this with his insistence on courtesy? "I never resorted to generalised personal abuse. I pinpointed a specific lie, told for a specific purpose - self-preservation."

One of his first solo outings, in 1967, was a successful campaign to stop the RAF building a staging post on the Indian Ocean atoll of Aldabra, and thereby destroying a pristine marine ecosystem. He began with a fusillade of parliamentary questions, followed with visits to every cabinet minister who would see him. Finally, mobilising his American contacts, he managed to get President Johnson to ring Harold Wilson and persuade him to call the whole thing off.

Dalyell was also first on the scene over Diego Garcia, another Indian Ocean atoll, which the British government secretly leased to the Americans to build a huge military base with a runway large enough to take B-52s. What was most shocking about Diego Garcia was that the island had been populated by generations of fishermen. Before leasing it to the Americans, the government simply deported the residents to mainland Mauritius and then declared that the territory was uninhabited. Forty years later, this matter is still a running sore.

Closer to home, Dalyell was one of the most fervent opponents of Scottish devolution, giving rise to the phrase with which he is most linked (though it was coined by Enoch Powell), "the West Lothian question". How, he asked the House in 1977, can it be right for MPs for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to vote on the domestic affairs of England, but not vice versa? It is a question to which, to this day, no satisfactory answer has been found.

Rightly or wrongly, he was a voluble opponent of so many British military adventures - the Falklands, the first Gulf war, the invasions of Kosovo and then Iraq. His finest hour came when Margaret Thatcher was forced to admit that the Argentinian battleship the General Belgrano, torpedoed with the loss of several hundred lives, had been steaming away from the Falklands, and therefore, contrary to what had been asserted, posed no immediate threat to the British fleet. Latterly he has pursued the case of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, whom he believes to be innocent.

This is an account of an extraordinary career, yet, if I am honest, it is a little ponderous and occasionally pompous. The opening chapters are heavy going, encrusted as they are with the names and doings of all the distinguished people the young Dalyell encountered. It is worth persisting with, however - for here is a man who never rose above the post of parliamentary private secretary, yet left an imprint on the body politic that will remain visible long after the careers of many who scaled the Olympian heights have been forgotten. Tam Dalyell is a one-off. We will not see his like again.

Chris Mullin was MP for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010. "A Walk-On Part", the third and final volume of his diaries, is newly published by Profile Books (£25)

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires