Iain Martin's Letter

The death of Tam Dalyell and the need for a good public life

There has been a coarsening of the culture of public life on both sides of the Atlantic since Dalyell's time

BY Iain Martin | iainmartin1   /  27 January 2017

The concept of a brief telephone conversation with Tam Dalyell did not exist. In the mid-1990s a young Sunday Times Scotland reporter looking for a quote and ringing “the Binns”, the ancient Dalyell family seat in West Lothian, had better have set aside a good half an hour, at least. Other anti-devolutionists in Scottish Labour (I’m looking at you, once shadow minister and long-time journalistic colossus Brian Wilson) had the delivery of the pithy off the record quote about the daftness of devolution down to a fine art. Tam even on the record needed to take a long run up, or more like a meandering stroll, towards the point. He always got there in the end, delivering many a punchy phrase, particularly in describing Scottish devolution as a motorway to independence with no exits.

It was fashionable in pro-devolution Labour circles twenty years ago to laugh at him for his anti-devo view, deep voice and courtly manners. Well, they’re not laughing now, with the SNP ten years into government at Holyrood and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pondering a second punt at breaking up the UK.

Tam Dalyell was a nuisance for his party, but highly unusually for a leading member of the parliamentary awkward squad he carried out his guerrilla activities for the most part courteously.

When the young Edinburgh-lawyer-turned-MP John Smith was Labour’s Home Rule minister in the late 1970s, and Tam was doing his best to frustrate his efforts, Dalyell’s drawn out approach in telephone calls so infuriated Smith that during one late night call too many, about a problem with the parliamentary Bill to create an Assembly in Edinburgh, Smith snapped.

Attempting to change the subject and take an advantage, Smith asked suddenly why Dalyell had failed the test to become an officer during his National Service. He had been to Eton and was a Baronet. The army usually made allowances for these matters, surely? Smith said he had always wondered what had gone wrong. Tam had served only as a private. Why? There was a long pause. “John, it was something to do with me losing a tank on Salisbury Plain.”

Donald Dewar told me that. It certainly sounds true, although all three – Dewar, Smith and now Dalyell – are sadly no longer with us. This week another connection with the tumultuous politics of the 1970s and 1980s was severed.

To most people under 40 the announcement that Tam Dalyell has died, aged 84 after a short illness, is unlikely to register. He stepped down from the House of Commons more than a decade ago, in 2005, and the peak of his activities came in those late 1970s battles over devolution running through to clashes with Margaret Thatcher.

For a period he was extremely well-known as the MP who pursued her over the Falklands War and the decision in particular to sink the Belgrano, an Argentinian cruiser, during the conflict. Dalyell kept asking: Why was it sunk? Why had Thatcher authorised such slaughter? Eventually some of his frustrated colleagues at Westminster responded outside the chamber with a bleak and fair assessment: The Belgrano was an Argentinian warship full of Argentinians. That was why it was sunk. Regardless of which direction in which it was sailing, because it could have turned round and headed for the Falklands to kill British sailors.

Dalyell never achieved high office and would have been unsuited to it anyway. His comments about Blair and the “Jewish lobby” at the time of the Iraq War in 2003 were a stain on his reputation and completely beneath him. It suggested fading powers and a loss of perspective. At the election two years later he retired.

On the question of the wisdom or otherwise of mangling the British constitution to deliver an Edinburgh parliament, without treating England fairly, his judgment is vindicated by events since. On Brexit he was fiercely opposed, only a few days ago giving an interview in which he said MPs should vote down Article 50 because departure from the EU will, he claimed, bring about Scottish independence. We’ll see.

My last of many encounters was at the Binns and Tam, missing the Commons, was typically keen to talk about the latest happenings in politics. The celebrated novelist Alexander McCall Smith had been invited to launch one of his books by the Dalyells with a smart dinner and speeches in the library of their home outside Edinburgh.

I arrived early on a flight from London to Edinburgh and Tam grabbed me. We retreated to a corner to talk about Gordon Brown and the transition from the Blair era, I recall. Dalyell was always contemptuous of Blair, but concerned about whether Brown would be able to step up. I think, though cannot recall fully, that he was a supporter of an early Scottish independence referendum, on the back of having a Scottish PM. That would have been a sensible move, before the SNP had too much time to organise. By that point prominent Labour devolutionists were also of that view. Brown as Prime Minister from 2007 prevaricated and then missed the moment. Shame.

I do not propose to paint the flawed parliamentarians of the past such as Tam Dalyell as somehow infinitely superior, as though there has been nothing but a decline in quality since. Those debates in which Tam first posed the West Lothian question (it was Enoch Powell who named it, not Dalyell) are certainly of an extremely high standard to read now. There was a stateliness to the best of the exchanges and a willingness by some MPs to co-operate across the chamber and respect views that they did not necessarily share.

But the Commons of old does not read or sound to me like an expression of the Athenian ideal. In the 1960s there was plenty of corruption and hypocrisy. In the 1970s it was almost exclusively male and awash with alcohol, making it rich in silly anecdotes. My friend Alan Cochrane, then a young parliamentary correspondent, recalls Gerry Fitt standing at the edge of the Commons terrace holding up his gin and tonic, pointing it out to the passing tourists on pleasure boats and shouting “it’s all free!”

Parliament has changed, they say, with MPs spending more time in their offices or meeting delegations. Still, there are plenty of good Commons performers, and if the Lords has become too large there is quality of intellect scattered amid the throng.

Reflecting on the passing into history of Dalyell and his generation, it is undeniable that there has been a coarsening of the culture of public life on both sides of the Atlantic, however. In Britain it is in part down to serial scandals – in parliament, the police, the military and the press – and the speed at  which the modern news cycle spins, chasing outrage and novelty.

Social media then amplifies the aggression, and in the Scottish referendum of 2014, the EU referendum and then the US election of 2016, the keyboard warriors – journalists, activists who can now respond direct and outright bampots (Scottish term) – fought endless duels which continue. Getting caught in the middle of one of these rows could be energising, although in the end the effect is akin to being at an overcrowded bar with multiple conversations going on and loud music playing while a fight breaks out near the toilets.

Social media also suits journalist snark or sarcasm. Irony doesn’t work as it is often misread. The tone is generally – there are exceptions – inhospitable and a tad grumpy. No wonder so many journalists use Twitter.

I am probably the last person who can complain about this coarsening. I’ve been too rude in print and online – to my regret – about the shortcomings of several figures, Nick Clegg and Jeremy Corbyn, to make the case that there should be a more civil discourse. It will never catch on. Anyway, there’s always been a role for journalists, or commentators more particularly, being punchy and sometimes personal about the powerful, since the dawn of “Grub Street” and Fleet Street. But how to stop it spilling over into ad hominem attacks that get no-one anywhere when you conclude that the man in the White House proves daily by his actions that he is utterly unfit? Pass.

There I am like many journalists wrestling in the Age of Trump and rampant populism with a problem to which I confess I simply do not know the answer.

It is easy to say that when it comes to Trump one should stick to the basic facts. But that is difficult, when even the new President himself is incapable of sticking to the basic facts. His outrages, at the CIA wall, on the debunked notion of widespread voter fraud, mean that it is all but impossible, unless you are writing a straight news report, to avoid poking fun or calling it out. Trumpism and ultra-liberalism are two sides of the same coin, incidentally, both equally intolerant and short-sighted, although that is for another time. What is clear is that Trump’s 2016 campaign put a particularly strong dose of poison in the bloodstream.

Even though the EU result was, for Brexiteers like me, worth celebrating, a poisoning also occurred in Britain during the referendum campaign last year. Two large groups in combat both fundamentally mistrusted each other’s motives and at moments of extreme stress even questioned the patriotism and sanity of their opponents.

Anger plus anger, minus civility, multiplied by social media, is no good in the end. There must be room for the concepts of public good, for honest disagreement and at least some respect for the idea of a good public life in service of country. There is no formula to ensure it, but a sensible place to start is strong, independent institutions filled with dedicated and sometimes wrongheaded people determined to defend them in a civilised manner. Tam Dalyell was such a man.