Neil Findlay: I will greatly miss my fearless friend Tam Dalyell – and history will show he was right on so many occasions

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Tam Dalyell book

I was speaking at a miners’ justice meeting in Edinburgh when they news came through of Tam Dalyell’s death.

Poignant, as he had given his unwavering support to the Polkemmet Miners during the 84/85 strike, naming the future head of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington as a regular attendee as a security services observer on the Whitburn pit picket line.

Tam was my greatest political friend and a mentor for almost 30 years. He was without doubt one of the greatest Parliamentarians of the last 50 years.

An old Etonian with a cut glass accent who lived in the historic family castle at the Binns, he may not have seemed to have much in common with his working class constituents in communities like Blackburn, Armadale, Fauldhouse and Whitburn. But Tam was genuinely loved by the people he represented and over half a century developed a tremendous relationship with them.

Whether it was car factory workers at British Leyland, the steel workers at Menzies or the women at Plessey and so many more, he represented them all. He had the memory of an elephant and had tremendous recall for names – a great political skill and made many life long friends amongst the thousands of constituents who benefited from his help.

On one occasion my brother had to go to his surgery for help. On turning up the smell in the small community centre office was horrendous. Tam took details of the case and had a ten minute chat, apparently oblivious to the foul smell – only on leaving did John notice that Tam had a very large Peacock poo on the front on his shoe. He kept a number of the birds at the Binns – his family home.

Tam was completely committed to public service and along with Kathleen, his wife, they were a brilliant and dedicated team dealing diligently with tens of thousands of cases in the days before computers and email. The ink pen and scrawled letter was Tam’s preferred method of communication. He was a very kind and funny man who enjoyed to laugh at the absurd, with great guffaws and heaving shoulders.

In Parliament, Tam was fearless and said that his public school education at Eton gave him “the hide of a rhino”. It made him unembarrassable, and with that he often found himself out on his own campaigning on issues that the Labour party leadership or government of the day would rather he kept quiet about. But that never deterred Tam.

There was not a chance of him keeping quiet. He saw it as his absolute duty to speak up and on issues he felt strongly about and do his very best for the people he represented. On huge issues such as Iraq, Lockerbie, the Falklands, devolution and much, much more by God he spoke up. And when he did, people listened.

He pursued issues with 100 per cent commitment and dogged determination. His work on the Falklands and the Belgrano almost brought about Thatcher’s resignation (Tam didn’t hate many people but he loathed Thatcher).

His work opposing devolution saw him tour the country debating the future of Scotland with Jim Sillars and, despite them being on opposite sides of a very passionate debate, they remained good friends. That was the way he did politics. He often said to me “disagree with people politically but don’t fall out personally.” I’m afraid I may not have totally lived up to his mantra.

He visited the Middle East many times and had an interest in the region because of his father’s work there during and after the Second World War. Along with people like George Galloway, Alice Mahon and Tony Benn he used every parliamentary device to try and prevent British military action in Iraq. Tam had served in the army so could not be accused of being a cowardly pacifist but he consistently opposed UK military intervention abroad. On most occasions history will show he was right on so many occasions.

Tam had a contact book that was the envy of every MP and always fiercely protected his sources. This served him well over the years.

In the 1970s and 80s he fought huge battles with the then SNP leader William Wolfe for the West Lothian seat. Wolfe at one point reduced Tam’s majority to just a few thousand, however after his campaign against devolution the following election saw him secure one of the largest majorities in Scotland.

As a parliamentarian he was the best of the best. If many of today’s politicians had an ounce of Tam’s independence of mind and were more willing to ignore the dictat from party managers our politics would be in much better shape.

Tam was a school teacher, a scientist – who, for decades, wrote a weekly column in the New Scientist-  a bee keeper, an author, a socialist, a unionist, a parliamentarian, a father, a grandfather, a friend and a great, great man.

I will greatly miss his advice, guidance and friendship.

Neil Findlay is MSP for the Lothians.

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