Skip to main content

 The Scots politician with too many principles to be a Soviet spy

He defines himself as ‘awkward’, and revels in the description. He was one of the best known and most effective of back-bench MPs, yet Tam Dalyell is one of the hardest of politicians to fathom. His autobiography, ‘The Importance of Being Awkward’ (Birlinn, £25) reveals a maverick, enraging, intellectually astute and quixotic, a politician of rare integrity.
There are the issues of class. His ancestor, Tam Dalyell of the Binns, a Scottish landed Presbyterian who zealously, unaccountably almost, fought for Charles Stewart in the English civil war, became a mercenary for the Russian tsar before returning to Scotland with the Restoration. The modern Tam’s loyalties are equally hard to rationalise. The son and grandson of Indian civil servants, his father had also served in Mesopotamia, and both his parents were Arab speakers. Dalyell revels in his Eton and Cambridge education. At Cambridge he was an active Tory, before returning home to teach in Bo’ness Academy and move quickly into Labour politics.
Asked why he switched from Tory to Labour, his response was Suez and unemployment. Perhaps Cambridge did that to a certain type of ruling class intellectual and Dalyell was from the background which provided those who ruled an empire in the same way as they ruled their local estate, with total confidence but a certain detachment from concerns of wealth. At one point Dalyell ruminates on why he was not selected at university by British military intelligence. (‘Not the right material, my dear.’) Perhaps a more interesting area for reflection would be the alleged attempts by the Soviet intelligence service to recruit him in the 1980s and their abandonment of the task because he ‘had too many principles’.
Fifty years previously, in the 1930s, the Soviets recruited precisely men like Dalyell: intellectuals disillusioned with the imperial project and aware of the threat of fascism. These men may have had a warped, selective view of the Soviet Union but they were not recruited because of a shortage of principles. Perhaps by the 1950s the pull of the Soviets had declined. Who knows what might have happened to Tam at Cambridge had he been 20 years older. Blunt, Philby and the Apostles would undoubtedly have targeted him.
Dalyell is of course famous for his opposition to Scottish devolution and to the Falklands war, on one of which issues this reviewer disagrees with him fundamentally and on the other agrees with equal vehemence. His book does not ignore these matters but indicates that there was far more to his political career than these issues which are, however, indicative of what makes the man tick. He does not justify his position on devolution from any of the traditional Labour positions, internationalism rather than nationalism, avoiding divisions in the Labour movement, a diversion from the real battles, but from a simple Unionist perspective. ‘My parents were always very conscious of their commitment and duty to Great Britain. Inevitably I imbibed some of this ethos.’ One of his most intriguing assertions is that John Smith was never committed to the devolution project. Dalyell did reach the conclusion that Cunningham’s 40% rule was a misjudgement.

He is a maverick and in that role he has served public life with distinction. He has a rigorous, sharp mind and soars above the conformists and hacks who increasingly dominate politics.

Nor does his position on the Falklands rest on an essentially left-wing position, although he has an impeccable history of opposition to ‘imperialist’ adventures. Rather he was incensed at Margaret Thatcher’s lies to parliament and at the party political, rather than military, purposes behind her order to sink the Belgrano. He opposed her actions because they were dishonourable and dishonest.
He is one of a small group of politicians who always questioned Megrahi’s guilt in respect of the Lockerbie bombing. He was not only persistent in this but supported the actions of the SNP government and Kenny MacAskill in releasing Megrahi.
He can be harshly critical of his own side. Kinnock lost the 1992 general election ‘when he behaved like a triumphant Welsh boyo’. He quotes an anonymous Fettes teacher who described Blair as ‘a shit and, take it from me, your Labour Party will come to regret it if you choose him’. He questions Robin Cook’s ‘high moral tone’ on his resignation from government. Yet he is generous to his political opponents. He describes Harry Greenway, Tory MP for North Ealing, as ‘a friend and political opponent in that order’. He was on warm terms with Enoch Powell. He notes Jim Sillars, who moved in the opposite direction to Dalyell on devolution and was his opponent in Linlithgow in 1987, as his friend.
Dalyell’s political effectiveness was as a back-bencher. He quickly established a place for himself as a meticulous constituency MP, an assiduous committee member, a respected contributor on specialist matters, especially scientific issues, and, above all else, as a tenacious and sceptical critic of government. He defended the interests of the people of Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago. He helped make public the deforestation of the Amazonian rain-forests. He enraged James Callaghan by wishing to visit Northern Ireland while Callaghan, as home secretary, was in charge and brooked no contrary perspective. He was one of the most vociferous opponents of both Iraq wars.
Dalyell’s retiral from the Commons symbolises a wider tendency, the replacement of great but idiosyncratic characters by bland machine men. This review started by describing Dalyell as an intellectually astute maverick and as quixotic. He is a maverick and in that role he has served public life with distinction. He has a rigorous, sharp mind and soars above the conformists and hacks who increasingly dominate politics. Is he quixotic? The Falklands, Megrahi, the rainforest, these were not windmills at which he tilted but, like Quixote, Dalyell is a product of minor privilege and a past age. A few more Quixotes would be no bad thing.

Leave a Reply