As alluded to in my previous ramblings for Scottish Review, I have a particular interest in the history of the much-lamented 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly. Aside from spending too much time lost down YouTube rabbit warrens and walking from one room to another only to forget what I went in there for, I have filled the various lockdowns and circuit breakers by trying to piece together the story of Scotland in the 1970s – a varied, captivating and often misunderstood decade which I missed living through by nearly 20 years.
Whilst Kirsty Wark has presented BBC Scotland viewers with an unashamedly 'people's history of the last half-century' in recent weeks, my story is, in a sense, one of 'high politics', dominated by intrigue, skulduggery and political manoeuvrings at Westminster, before campaigners took to streets and town halls north of the border. As Margo MacDonald told the New York Times
just days before Scots went to the polls on 1 March 1979, the referendum was Scotland's chance to break away from its characteristic and longstanding 'bravado and insecurity, resulting in paralysis'.
Four years ago, yesterday, one of the referendum's most distinctive and charismatic characters, Tam Dalyell, the intrepid Labour MP for West Lothian, died. Of all the recent candidates for a starring role in the movie of Scotland's story since 1945, 'Tam' – who like 'Winston', 'Enoch', 'Margaret' and 'Boris' is still easily identified by his first name alone – remains one of the most prolific 'heroic characters' involved in 'dramatic episodes', which Sir Tom Devine and Jenny Wormald once claimed characterised Scottish history.
Educated at Edinburgh Academy, Eton College and King's College, Cambridge, before training to become a teacher at Moray House, Dalyell, whose biographer Russell Galbraith dubbed him 'The Man They Can't Gag', was a stalwart of the House of Commons, representing West Lothian from 1962 until the abolition of that seat in 1983, and then Linlithgow until his retirement and the constituency's remodelling in 2005. Despite never occupying ministerial office, his political longevity took him from life as a young and promising Parliamentary Private Secretary to Richard Crossman in the mid-1960s, to succeeding Sir Edward Heath as Father of the House in 2001.
'Oor Tam', who often found himself out of step with his party, was fiercely independent and a staunch defender of both parliament as an institution and the independence of MPs. A 'persecutor of Prime Ministers' and the 'despair of party whips', Dalyell lacked the requisite flexibility and the willingness to compromise one's principles necessary to climb Disraeli's 'Greasy Pole'. In his diary of Jim Callaghan's turbulent premiership, Tony Benn observed that Tam 'makes good points, but he always raises them at the wrong time'.
For Henry McLeish, who played lion tamer to Tam's big cat during the passage of the Scotland Act 1998, Dalyell was an immensely likeable 'purist', a great historian and defender of parliamentary procedure, whose infamous 'West Lothian Question' highlighted the absurdity, in McLeish's eyes, of taking Scottish issues out of Westminster but still sending Scots to 'decide [primarily, although not exclusively] English issues in England'.
For nearly 43 years, Tam, whose political career was fuelled by the firmness of both his convictions and the hard-boiled eggs which sustained him during long sittings in the House of Commons, was one of Britain's most recognisable public figures. 'Distinctive in looks, with thick strands of wavy hair worn in an upturned ice-cream-cone style', he was, as his Times
obituary noted, 'a serious-minded man who was little given to small talk'. However, as Kenneth Roy recorded in Conversations in a Small Country
, Dalyell, who conceded that his often 'gloomy' expression belied his deep and perpetual happiness, also had a 'tendency to use [sonorous and hearty] laughter as a weapon'.
Anyone who met or watched Tam at work will be familiar with his trademark and legendary combination of what Christopher Harvie unforgettably called 'the folksy and the Olympian'. On one infamous occasion in January 1979, Dalyell bested a young Gordon Brown by answering a member of the public's question about the assembly by replying: 'Yes, I'm glad you asked me that about extra taxation, Betty, because as Willy Brandt told me...'.
In the midst of the infamous heatwave of the summer of 1976, Tam memorably submitted a 39-point written question to Bruce Millan, the Secretary of State for Scotland, seeking clarification on every aspect of the renovation of the Old Royal High School, which was intended to house the Scottish Assembly. Whilst Tam was the most prominent and persuasive of 'No' campaigners, his pointed questioning sought to understand how the Scottish Office would allocate contracts for construction work and ensure value-for-money, whilst trying to convey to an unsure public the scale of the task the government was taking on.
Tam's skill as a parliamentary operator meant that the Scottish Office was tasked with answering how the renovation would affect the flow of traffic into Central Edinburgh from 'an easterly direction'; explaining the specifics of the heating system; justifying why the Scottish Office proposed to fill the swimming pool; clarifying how much carpets would cost and where they would be bought from; and even outlining how they proposed to find alternative accommodation for the 'recreational canoe facilities' which were housed inside the Grade A listed building on Regent Road.
Whilst I suspect that Tam's legacy remains something of a bugbear for both nationalists and all those who strived to establish a Scottish Parliament, the rigour and thoroughness that characterised his career are in short supply in SW1 in 2021. For Peter Hennessy, Tam, who had guile and gumption in spades, is a shoo-in for inclusion in a 'Dissenters' Corner' to honour great parliamentarians in Westminster Abbey.
Although Speakers Bercow and Hoyle both committed to advancing the rights and prominence of backbench MPs, there are very few persistent independents in the current House of Commons, though the growing clout of select committees since 1979 has improved the quality of line-by-line scrutiny in recent years.
once suggested that his devotion to Heart of Midlothian Football Club was indicative of his 'quixotic' pursuit of lost causes. Whilst Tam's prized independence allowed him to doggedly interrogate the logistics and intricacies of devolving power to Scotland, the sinking of the Belgrano, and make the still not uncontroversial assertion that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi's conviction for the Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 was a 'massive injustice', he remains the exception, not the rule, amongst backbenchers.
Over 15 years on from his retirement, with a Prime Minister who instinctively resents scrutiny and ripples at dissent – as well as growing concerns about the UK's 'chumocracy', which sees billions of pounds worth of public contracts handed to friends, family and associates of government ministers – parliament remains immeasurably poorer without members of Tam's stature.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly