I have just spent a very entertaining hour listening to Tam Dalyell – veteran Labour politician and asker of the West Lothian question. He treated his attentive audience to a romp through conspiracy theories and remembrances of Prime Ministers past.
Tam came over this evening as caring passionately about his country – both Scotland and the United Kingdom, and caring passionately about the institution of parliament and the democratic process.
He has made a career out of being his own man and a thorn in the side of the establishment as he holds them to book for standards of integrity.
Dalyell is polite, his mind is sharp and he is blunt and clinical in the conclusions he draws. Among these stark comments he made the following bold assertions tonight.
- Scotland is on a motorway to independence with no exits.
- Tony Blair is by far the worst Prime Minister of Tam’s political life and lied about commitments he made to George Bush.
- Michael Foot would have made a rather good Prime Minister.
- Mrs Thatcher lied to scupper a peace deal to allow her to press on with the Falklands war.
- Al Megrahi is innocent of the Lockerbie Pan Am bombing and Britain complicit in a cover up.
He was speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival having recently published his memoirs. He was affably and skilfully interviewed by James Naughtie of Radio 4’s Today programme for the hour long session in front of a rapt audience. Naughtie carefully drew out all the good bits without allowing the evening to get bogged down on any one topic.
Tam’s eyes lit up like a little boy when he can enter into the detail of documentation, timing and the paper trail of evidence that exposes the great and the good. Dalyell’s style is to be polite, dignified and with a clinical relentlessness as he chases his pray. Never confrontational or aggressive Tam has entitled his autobiography the Importance of Being Awkward.
Baited by Naughtie on his relationship with Mrs Thatcher, Dalyell insisted there was never any enmity between them, merely that he was always polite and accurate in his questioning.
Indeed, Dalyell seeks a certain straight line logic in his pursuit of the truth, missing perhaps a greater truth sometimes.
What do I mean by this?
Does it matter that Mrs Thatcher avoided going down a road marked Peruvian peace deal? She knew that that was probably a distraction and the war needed to be won and the Belgrano removed as a threat irrespective of its exact position or direction of travel at any one time.
Similarly is it really that significant that Tony Blair had probably made detailed undertakings to support Bush in Iraq when they met in Texas? Now, I thought then as I think now that going to war in Iraq was wrong – both politically and morally. However, it seems to me that on a matter such as this it is perfectably understandable that a Prime Minister would take a view and that is the direction in which he leads!
Far more interesting was the idea that the modern British Prime Ministers have no military experience and are far looser with sending troops into action than previous generations who have served in combat.
Tam also spoke a little of Lockerbie, a case riddled with conspiracy that he has investigated over the years. He is adamant that Megrahi is innocent and he believes that Abu Nidal and the Peoples Front for the Liberation of Palestine are responsible – presumably with a connection to Iran. He states that $10million was deposited in the PFLP bank account 2 days after Lockerbie in December 1988!
Dalyell was not adamant about everything. He says he was wrong to support Michael Foot for leadership of the Labour Party and that he should have supported Dennis Healey. Paradoxically he said Foot would have made a good Prime Minister based on his ability to delegate effectively!
Perhaps one of the most interesting questions to an audience in Edinburgh in 2011 was Tam Dalyell’s attitude to Scottish devolution. He said his view was the same in 2011 as it had been in 1978. Devolution once given inevitably will lead to Independence. This is because parliaments always want to gather power for themselves. He feels this is a bad thing. Strangely I thought he is strongly a fan of the EU but does not seem to carry his views to the logical conclusion that Europe will want more power and will seek to take them from the UK. In this regard I don’t think Tam is right on the inevitability of anything.
He raised another interesting point – what happens when England says no? He meant England will lose patience as Scotland unpicks the union – even in trivial ways – and will accelerate independence for us. But equally England could say no to many of the Devo Max solutions which involve ‘sharing’ sovereignty with Scotland.
Undoubtedly Tam Dalyell is a man of enormous integrity and great intellectual energy. A real big beast and character of Scottish politics, but enagaging as he is, I don’t remember him ever being truly that influential and I think there are all sorts of little holes in his thinking.
Tam finished by quoting Harold MacMillan, who he had a very high regard for. Tam was interested in ‘events dear boy, events’. Perhaps this is the truth. He is happiest exposing some indiscretion or inconsistency around a major event rather than solving the problem and dealing with a complex situation.