Author: Alex Wood

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Thursday, September 15th, 2011 at 2:42 pm
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Book Reviews

The Importance of Being Awkward – Tam Dalyell’s autobiography

It starts with the history of one of Scotland’s landed families, especially intriguing because of a willingness to permit the inheritance to pass through the female line. From a childhood in the idyllic rolling country of northLinlithgowshire to Eton, to national service with the Scots Greys and then to Cambridge, the least expected destination is among the awkward squad on Labour’s parliamentary back-benches. That however is a potted version of the life of Tam Dalyell, latterly father of the House of Commons, a thorn in the side of several premiers, a politician of character and integrity and a multi-faceted human being. His autobiography, The Importance of Being Awkward (Birlinn, £25) is one of the most mesmerising of several recent political lives published in Scotland.


Tam Dalyell starts by placing himself in the family from which he sprang, Scottish lairds, soldiers and imperial civil servants. He tells the tale of his maternal grandfather, James Bruce Wilkie, who had served in the Boer War, been appalled by the British treatments of the Boers and, on his return, partly as a result of his ‘principled and stubborn’ personal traits, used his many social and political contacts to institute an enquiry which re-oriented British colonial administrative policy thereafter.

Perhaps there was a genetic trait in Tam Dalyell’s persistent harrying of what he considered inappropriate foreign policies. Dalyell, a Tory at Cambridge, was converted to Labour by his horror at the Suez adventure and his unwillingness to accept rising unemployment.

He returned from Cambridge and became a school teacher at Bo’ness Academy which was then in West Lothian and a far cry from the Eton of his own youth. There is a considerable emphasis on his experience as a teacher, on his championing of educational cruise ships and on his work on these ships. By this time Dalyell had become active in the Labour Party. He contested Roxburgh, Serlkirk and Peebles for the Labour Party in the 1959 General Election and, partly as a result of a strong performance there, was selected as Labour’s candidate for the West Lothian by-election in 1962. He won the seat and continued to represent it (with some boundary changes) until his retiral in 2005, by which time he was the Father of the House of Commons.

It may seem odd that such a patrician should have operated so successfully as a Labour MP. What is revealed however, it is not clear how deliberately, is a man who brought a range of skills, attributes and experience to the politician’s trade. Firstly he married well – perhaps not by the standards of his own background but in Kathleen Wheatley, daughter of the judge John Wheatley, and great-niece of the Clydeside hero, John Wheatley, Housing Minister in the 1923 Labour government, he rooted himself in another tradition and found a partner whose unremitting support he frankly and enthusiastically acknowledges.

He was also the gentleman which his upbringing had made him. He remained throughout his political career on warm terms with many of his political opponents. He practiced courtesy to all as a natural but also deliberate strategy. He speaks warmly of countless Tories, particularly Ted Heath, as well, for example, of Jim Sillars, latterly of the SNP. Similarly he held many in the ranks of the senior civil service, the scientific communities and the academic world in high regard, and he utilised his contacts with them to pursue issues with a meticulous approach and with the best technical advice. He also emerges from the book as a man of wide cultural appreciation, personal sensitivity and acute intelligence, traits not universal among the political class.

There is some time spent in the book on the two issues for which Dalyell is best known, his opposition to Scottish devolution and his intransigent pursuit of Margaret Thatcher over the sinking of the Belgrano, yet these are not over-emphasised. He patently wants to ensure that the reader is aware of his wide range of interests while he was in parliament. He was one of a small number of MPs who intervened regularly on scientific issues. He reminds us that he opposed intervention in both wars in Iraq. He was, throughout his political career, ardently pro-EEC but interested in a wide range of foreign policy issues. Above all however he was a firmly rooted constituency MP and much of the book recounts both his experiences in West Lothian, pursuing the interests of those whom he represented, and acknowledging the extensive support he received from countless local individuals and organisations. In particular there are fascinating insights into the birth and demise of the British Leyland factory at Bathgate.

It is therefore particularly fitting that Tam Dalyell will be speaking about his autobiography at the Linlithgow Book Festival in the heart of the constituency he represented and only a stone’s throw from his family’s historic home at the Binns, on Saturday 5th November. The Importance of Being Awkward reminds us that a healthy democracy requires politicians who will goad the system with integrity and perseverance. Such politicians seldom climb to the top of the greasy pole. Tam Dalyell seems eminently satisfied to have failed to make that particular ascent. Even those of us who have sometimes disagreed, disagreed fundamentally even, with Tam on this or that issue should be pleased he graced the political firmament. In an age of increasingly bland homogeneity and of slick public relations, Tam Dalyell and his book have profound things to say.

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One Response to “The Importance of Being Awkward – Tam Dalyell’s autobiography”

  1. Isabel Gillard Says:

    I was already a pushover for the wisdom and forthrightness of Tam Dalyell before reading the review, which has done nothing to dispel this view. It is seldom that admiration has lasted so consistently with me. I have pleasure in being the thirty-first visitor.

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