Tam Dalyell

He was all of a piece from omphalos

Eulogy on Tam Dalyell by Neil Findlay, MSP:

ON THE EVENING of 26 January 2017 I was speaking at a miners’ justice event at the Jewel Miners Welfare on the outskirts of Edinburgh when news broke that my greatest political friend and mentor Tam Dalyell had died. When someone reaches their 80s you realise bad news isn’t far off, but the passing of such a great man had a profound effect on me.

From my first tentative steps in the Labour Party we struck up a great friendship. He was always supportive and listened carefully to my arguments and Views. He would call the house for a chat about the latest issues and ask my opinions. A great role model, he showed me how to be a dogged campaigner and was everything a parliamentarian should be.

I was privileged to write an obituary for Holyrood magazine and some local media, but while in conversation with Tam’s wife Kathleen and their son, Gordon, I was humbled to be asked to speak at his memorial service in Linlithgow, his body having been donated to scientific research. I was determined to do Tam’s career justice and myself proud.

As the service drew closer, I learned that the other speakers were Oxford professor Lord Peter Hennessy, the Right Honourable Brian Wilson, a former Government Minister, and Tim O’Shea, Principal of Edinburgh University. No pressure then.

The church was full of politicians from across the political spectrum, including Sir Menzies Campbell, Sir Patrick Cormack and Alistair Darling. The service was a fitting tribute to Tam’s career. Tim O’Shea spoke of his contribution to education as a teacher and university rector. Peter Hennessy focused on Tam’s brilliance as a parliamentarian, while Brian Wilson covered his role in the anti-devolution campaign of the I970s, where he became famous for the so called ‘West Lothian Question’.

The following is my contribution, which I hope captures the man and his relationship with local people over many decades as their constituency MP.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends; it is a great honour and privilege to have been invited by Tam’s family to speak at this service about his immense contribution to West Lothian life in over half a century of public service in education and politics.

I was speaking at a miners’ justice event near Edinburgh when news of Tam’s passing came through. I couldn’t help but reflect on how fitting it was, given Tam’s lifelong relationship with the miners of West Lothian and across the country, and his unwavering commitment to shale and coal industry workers throughout his life.

Tam became our MP with the endorsement of many miners and was not only loyal to them throughout but became a great personal friend to many. During the seismic events of 1984/85, Tam was a regular on the Polkemmet picket line, supporting local workers in that titanic struggle for jobs and communities, and in doing so exposed the role of the Thatcher Government and how forces of the state, including the security services and police, were directed by Thatcher to defeat the strike at all costs. Famously, he exposed the future head of M15, Dame Stella Rimington, as a regular security services agent on the picket line at the Whitburn Pit.

As news of Tam’s passing filtered into the mainstream, glowing tributes poured in. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said, ‘Tam was a titan of parliamentary scrutiny, fearless in pursuit of the truth.’

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell added, ‘He was a fine socialist and a parliamentarian of the first order.’ Dr Jim Swire, on behalf of the Lockerbie families, called him, ‘A righteous and fearless soldier in the cause of what is right.’ And his old sparring partner and friend Jim Sillars said, ‘Tam was a man of rock-hard integrity and a wonderful parliamentarian.’

These few examples highlight his legendary campaigning, dogged determination and political and parliamentary skills — all appropriate and absolutely right, but to us, the people of West Lothian, yes, he was our representative, our MP, our voice in parliament, but more important than all that, he was our trusted, reliable, honest, supportive and consistent pal. Loyal, but not uncritical friendship is one of the greatest gifts one human being can give to another, and Tam gave it to many.

I first met him when I was in my late teens, having just joined the Labour Party, and no matter my youthful rantings, naivety or idealism, Tam never once looked down on me, never dismissed my

Views or the views of anyone else. He treated everyone the same — with total respect, listening carefully to them and taking on board their comments.

He was no fan of New Labour and once said to me, ‘Neil, you and I aren’t Old Labour, we’re not New Labour either, we are Jurassic Labour!’ I liked that.

He spoke of his first brush with local politics. Having taken up an issue that was clearly the remit of the council, he received a note from Jimmy Boyle, leader of West Lothian County Council, saying, ‘Foreign affairs yours, dog shit mine.’ The demarcation lines of responsibility established very early on in his tenure. He did of course go on to be a great champion of local government, and build good relationships with regional and district councillors across the county.

During his time as MP he dealt with literally thousands of local cases. These were not the days of email, texting and Twitter – no sir, for Tam it was a brief scrawled letter in fountain pen sent to the relevant government minister, public agency or company. And very effective it was too.

He took great pride in his constituency work, and surgeries very rarely missing a constituency party meeting, as hearing directly, from constituents was invaluable to Tam and one of his top priorities On one occasion, my brother visited his surgery for help. However, the stench in the small community centre office was horrendous. Tam, clearly oblivious to the pungent odour, took details of the case and had a chat — my brother all the time trying not to heave — and only on leaving did he notice that Tam had a large peacock shite on the front of his shoe. He kept a number of peacocks in the grounds of The Binns, and while he can claim many firsts in his career, he is surely the only MP to have conducted his surgery with a peacock’s doings on his shoe!

Tam was a great politician, but couldn’t have managed such a huge caseload without the help of his beloved wife and soulmate, Kathleen. They were very much a double act and a hugely effective one at that. There is not a chance that Tam could have made the impact he did in his life were it not for Kathleen’s massive intellectual, as well as practical, contribution to her husband’s work, and for that we thank her.

There are so many positives to pick out from Tam’s life, but for a moment I would like to focus on one area where Tam was absolutely dreadful — amongst the worst you are ever likely to come across — and that was his driving skills. He had none. He would often ask some unsuspecting conference delegate or party member if they wanted a lift to the conference or home from a meeting. And before that unsuspecting comrade had time to think, they had accepted a lift. Big mistake. The journey in the wee blue Mini Metro was something to behold. Tam had a car with a manual gearbox but would drive permanently in third gear, either from a standing start or along the motorway. Like his politics he remained doggedly in the same gear until the journey’s end, but he must have gone through more gearboxes than petrol!

Constituency party meetings with Tam were an education. We held them in Glen’s Bar on a Sunday afternoon, around the same time as the Karaoke phenomenon was hitting Scotland. Downstairs in Glen’s, the afternoon singers would be warming up as we were having our monthly party meeting. By the time we got to Tam’s parliamentary report, the drink had kicked in downstairs and the sing-song was at fever pitch. At this point, Tam was heavily involved in trying to prevent what would become the disastrous Iraq war and was pursuing issues around the Lockerbie bomb. So he would begin his report by saying to Alistair Mackie or Ian Grant, ‘Mr Chairman, my constituency report may take a bit longer than usual this month,’ at which point we knew we were in for at least an hour of global politics, espionage and intrigue that would take us across many continents. There was something magical and apt about Tam’s oratory taking us from Iraq to Kuwait and Malta to Libya and Latin America, set against the backdrop of someone downstairs murdering Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ or Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’. It often resembled an episode of Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights.

At election time, I recall Brian Fairley’s vain attempts to bring some razzmatazz to Tam’s election campaign by hiring an open-top double decker bus to tour the constituency. Brian’s plan hit the buffers immediately, as Tam refused to go upstairs, instead spending his time hiding on the lower deck. If there had been a toilet on the bus, I think he would have locked himself inside. The words razzmatazz and Tam Dalyell did not belong in the same sentence.

He did his electioneering differently but with great skill, building relationships and friendships across the constituency. We were campaigning in Blackridge one afternoon where we came across an old guy leaning on a gate having a fag. Tam walked up and said, ‘Hi, you must be Mr Collins, brother of Willie Collins, former NUM delegate at Woodend pit’.

Completely taken aback, the man replied, ‘How the hell dae ye ken that?’

‘You look like him. I would recognise that face any day.’

‘Well, there ye go,’ said the man, amazed, and on we walked, Mr Collins’ vote secured and no doubt that of his family and half the street too.

Tam’s kindness, generosity and courtesy saw him build lifelong friendships with Liberals, Communists, Tories, Nationalists and Unionists and across the broadest spectrum of the Labour movement at home and internationally. Although a staunch opponent of devolution, he was one of the first to congratulate and encourage me when I was elected to the Scottish Parliament.

I have no doubt that, when selected as the Labour candidate in 1962, people questioned how an ex-Tory, old Etonian who lived in a grand family home and who spoke with an accent that wasn’t exactly ‘Stoneyburn or Armadale’ could represent the industrial working class of West Lothian. Well, he did, and with some aplomb. He gained their trust, showed them loyalty and commitment and he did it through hard work. Whether it was the women at Plessey, the car workers at Leyland or the miners at Polkemmet, Tam took up their cause and put heart and soul into it; and they repaid his loyalty election after election.

So many people across West Lothian will miss Tam and we of course mourn his passing, but we must genuinely celebrate a life packed with experiences, a life totally committed to public service, a life dedicated to advancing the cause of the working people of West Lothian and seeking truth and justice in all he did.

In 2004, Tam’s great friend Tony Benn wrote a book called Dare to be Daniel, challenging us to be like Daniel in the bible and stand up against big, powerful forces. I believe a fitting tribute to Tam is this: no matter what you do in life, no matter where you live or how rich or poor you are, seek truth and justice, speak up when you believe in a cause and ‘Dare to be Tam’.

This is a closing passage from Socialism and Hope 
by Neil Findlay, MSP.