Following the sad news last month of the death of the fondly remembered maverick MP Tam Dalyell, today we begin an occasional series exploring interviews with former MPs from our oral history project we have now lost…
Since his death, Tam Dalyell’s many obituaries have praised him as a politician of principle, if one of many contradictions. He was the socialist who went to Eton; the Labour Scot who opposed devolution; the courteous, likeable man who proved to be the thorn in the side of ministers from any party, including his own. He sat for West Lothian (later Linlithgow), the constituency of his ancestral home for 43 years, four as father of the house. He was respected as a tireless campaigner, a hard-worker, and a stubborn man best known mostly for the ‘West Lothian question’ and for hounding Margaret Thatcher about the sinking of the Argentinian warship the Belgrano during the Falklands War.
A former trustee of the History of Parliament, Dalyell was one of the first subjects of our oral history project. Even in the setting of an oral history interview he proved formidable: seizing our interviewer’s notes before starting, he often seemed to be conducting the interview himself! Yet the interview remains a lasting testament to his career and character.
Chief amongst the contradictions remarked upon after his death was how he turned from chairman of the Cambridge Conservative Association to the ‘darling’ of Labour’s left in the 1980s. In his words:
He later described the Egyptian President Nasser turning up at his hotel one night when he visited the country on honeymoon in 1963.
Conservative MP Sir David Madel, in his interview for the project, described Dalyell as a “the most devastating questioner in the House.” His reputation for awkwardness was certainly well-earned; he was thrown out of the House on several occasions for calling Margaret Thatcher a liar over the sinking of the Belgrano, and became known for his campaigning on issues, particularly in foreign policy. In his interview, he described how this began:
I was never ever awkward for the sake of being awkward. I’ll tell you where it started, in a sense. I became Dick Crossman’s PPS when he was minister of housing… In February 1965 it became apparent that there was not the resources to carry out the housing commitments the Labour party in opposition had given. He thought and I thought that a lot of the trouble was this huge defence budget, and that was all east of Suez. So, I started asking questions about the Borneo war [British involvement to help support the creation of Malaysia against opposition from Indonesia, 1963-66].
Despite opposition from his party’s front bench he went on an official visit to Asia soon after, which included an argument at dinner with Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Singapore. He returned to London “very critical of the Ministry of Defence” ready to ask “a whole battery of questions” about defence issues, including the plan to turn the atoll of Aldabra into a military airport. This campaign reached as far as the White House, and Dalyell was successful in preventing it going ahead.
Despite his recognition of the need to be “awkward”, he many remarked on his courtesy to his colleagues. In his words:
He was also aware of the implications being awkward could have for him in his constituency, and made sure to keep up good relations with his party and constituents:
He later stated that his constituency party never succeeded in changing his mind: “If an MP argues a case strongly and on principle, his constituency will on the whole give him the benefit of the doubt.”
As for the ‘West Lothian question’ – the problem of devolution where Scottish (and Welsh) MPs could vote on issues in England that they had no power over in their own constituency – he would not take credit for coining the term, despite his continual questioning of the policy during the 1978-79 debates on the Scotland Bill. Here he describes how the term came about:
The full interview with Tam Dalyell is available to hear as part of the British Library’s sound archive.