The death of Tam Dalyell, one of the most remarkable Labour MPs that I have known, has been rightly marked today by extensive obituaries in many media outlets. I won’t try to add to the full accounts of his life which can be found there, but thought as my own mark of respect mention three particular episodes which represent different aspects of his unique character.
The first is the last time I actually met Tam. It was last year, at the annual lecture he sponsored at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, held to mark contributions by scientists for “Excellence in Engaging the Public with Science”. Tam was by that stage very frail. But his intellect was as sharp as ever, and his prize lecture illustrated his commitment and interest in science, and public understanding of scientific progress. For him, politics was something which needed to be taken outside Parliament, although he was in the best sense a committed parliamentarian.
A much earlier occasion was when I was a Labour Parliamentary candidate for the first time, in Edinburgh Pentlands in 1987. First time candidates in non-Labour seats were allocated (I imagine they still are) ‘mentors’, and I was allocated to Tam. This was shortly after the Falklands war, and I well remember a phone call I received about 11.30 pm one night. I answered the phone somewhat blearily, and heard in that slow and deliberate voice of his: “It’s Tam. I’m very worried about the Belgrano.” Being half-asleep, I could not immediately work out what I, as a mere Labour candidate and local councillor, was meant to do about that, but I blurted out an appropriate response. Tam, no doubt, went to pursue his concerns about that issue with more productive and more important interlocutors.
But it didn’t end there. Prompted by Tam, I duly held a couple of public meetings in the constituency to discuss the issues he raised about that issue, and it is a mark of how widely he stirred convention and received wisdom that hundreds of people came along to hear and question him. And Tam did go on to give me some practical advice and support in my election campaign in 1987 in other ways as well, for which I was very grateful.
And when I was eventually elected as a Member of Parliament, in 2001, Tam was certainly somebody who I could see for myself was both respected, and regarded as an infernal nuisance, for pursuing his many and wide-ranging concerns. Tam was, of course, regarded as a ‘rebel’. In fact, he didn’t vote against the party whip on many occasions. I don’t think he liked doing that. But he would, when principles were at stake. I remembered that when, as a recently elected MP, I agonised about whether I should vote against the Labour government’s proposal to join the US in the 2nd Gulf War. Tam, along with Robin Cook, was one of those whose passionate opposition to the Iraq war convinced me to vote against that ill-fated enterprise.
And Tam was also, of course, a convinced European. Last year, he urged MPs who wanted to keep the UK in the EU not to be cowards and vote for what they believed. An approach which I would commend to quite a few MPs as they face the momentous decision whether to back Theresa May’s Brexit plans, and her patent wish to tie the UK to Trump’s foreign policy.