'I have changed my mind on Blair: he's worse than I thought'.
After more than 40 years as a Labour MP, Tam Dalyell as announced that he is to retire. But, as he tells Colin Brown, he won't be going quietly
A few months ago, Tam Dalyell, the veteran Labour MP and founder of Parliament's awkward squad, said Tony Blair was the "worst Prime Minister" of the eight he has known.
Over afternoon tea with strawberry jam and scones in the elegant Pugin Bar at the House of Commons, Mr Dalyell confided to me that he had changed his opinion of Mr Blair.
"He is not the worst," said Mr Dalyell last week. "He is by far the worst."
Mr Dalyell, 71, announced last week that he would retire at the next election after more than 40 years at Westminster. Mr Blair, perhaps thankful that his adversary was quitting, led the tributes to him.
"Fiercely independent, Tam's persistence in pursuing causes close to his heart is legendary," Mr Blair told the House.
The kind remarks by the Prime Minister cut little ice with the member for Linlithgow who, as the longest-serving MP, is also Father of the House. After decades of outspokenly opposing British military interventions, from Suez to Iraq, and leading campaigns on the environment, international relations and civil liberties, he has no intention of leaving quietly.
"Tony should go," he declared. "And he should take his friend Lord Falconer [the Lord Chancellor] with him."
Mr Dalyell believes that Mr Blair has all but destroyed Cabinet government with his "presidential" style and that he is too remote from his party. "He has talented people in his Cabinet but they don't have power bases in the party," he complained.
"I am incandescent with anger with him. We had far more understanding from Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Ted Heath, Alec Douglas-Home, and from Harold Macmillan and John Major.
"Even Margaret Thatcher - whatever I have said about her role in the Falklands War - acted because we were attacked. In the war on Iraq we adopted a new doctrine of the pre-emptive strike. It is a disastrous doctrine."
His rebelliousness has included his hounding of Lady Thatcher over the sinking of the Belgrano, the Argentinian cruiser, as well as opposition to the 1990-91 Gulf war and the Kosovo campaign. Mr Blair once claimed that he had opposed "every bullet fired since 1945".
Because he has so often rebelled, many people believe that he is a Leftist, and for a period he was indeed a member of the hard-Left Campaign group, albeit its only member who regularly wears an old Etonian tie.
In truth, though, he is hard to pigeon-hole. The best description of him would be as an immensely courteous, eccentric toff: Sir Tam Dalyell Bt, a hereditary baronet, whose home is his family's turreted 17th century mansion, The Binns, at Linlithgow. Rather like the ravens at the Tower of London, it is said that while peacocks parade on the lawns of The Binns (Gaelic for hills) it will remain in Dalyell hands.
Unlike many on the hard-Left, he is a pro-European, a believer in nuclear power and a fierce opponent of devolution, even for his native Scotland. He once boasted: "I'm ancient Labour. I want nothing from the party leadership, so they cannot control me."
He tried to exculpate Col Gaddafi over the Lockerbie atrocity and last year sparked outrage by accusing the Prime Minister of being unduly influenced by "a cabal of Jewish advisers".
He will also be remembered as the man who pertinently raised the "West Lothian Question", named after his original constituency: why should post-devolution Scottish MPs be able to vote in the Commons on purely English legislation, but English MPs not be able to vote on Scottish matters?
After taking a history and economics MA at King's College, Cambridge, where he was president of the Conservative students, he joined the Royal Scots Greys, the regiment created in the 17th century by his ancestor and namesake, Gen Tam Dalyell, a Royalist known as "Bluidy Tam" for his brutal suppression of uprisings. He was expected to become an officer but lost an armoured car on Salisbury Plain and was reduced to the ranks.
After National Service he volunteered for the Korean war (although he was sent to Germany instead, it is a fact that Mr Dalyell insists shows that he is not a pacifist, rather an anti-imperialist).
It was after the Suez Crisis in 1956 that the 10th baronet turned to socialism and won West Lothian for Labour in 1962. Because of his bloody-minded contrariness, the closest he came to office was as parliamentary private secretary to Richard Crossman in the 1960s.
He intends to be contrary to the end: as a Scottish MP, he should not vote at all on January 27 on top-up fees for English universities, but will breach his principles to vote against the policy. "I am rector of the court of the University of Edinburgh and they are deeply concerned," he explained.
Retirement will allow him to spend more time with his wife of 40 years, Kathleen, and his son and daughter. He does not expect the Prime Minister to offer him a peerage. "Anyway I would make a very bad peer," he said. "I would ask awkward questions. I would get drummed out of the Brownies."
Mr Dalyell insisted that Mr Blair should go before the general election, preferably after his 10th anniversary as leader of the party this year: "Ten years as leader of the party is enough for anybody. That is enough for the Archangel Gabriel."
[Source: Sunday Telegraph, London, UK, 18Jan04]
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