Tam Dalyell

Tam Dalyell is Labour MP for West Lothian. His book, A Science Policy for Britain, was reviewed by John Ziman (LRB, Vol. 6, No 15).

Easter Island Revisited

Tam Dalyell, 27 June 1991

In my 29 years as a Member of the House of Commons, I can recollect only one occasion when I have broken out in a cold sweat of anxiety. It was on a Saturday morning, at home, when I was shaving and listening to the 7 a.m. BBC Radio News. Headline Number One: a senior civil servant had been taken into custody for an alleged breach of the Official Secrets Act.

If you were a Kurd, perched on a mountain hillside, with ailing or dead parents, and suffering children, would you thank Mr Bush? I use his name generically for the British and Americans, and those Arabs who were swept along by us – initially, at any rate, against their better judgment – into a shooting war. The question is rhetorical. You would feel the kind of anger that the Jews felt as they risked their lives to get to Palestine on unseaworthy tubs zig-zagging towards Haifa in the late Forties.

Diary: Questions for Mrs Thatcher

Tam Dalyell, 23 July 1987

I spent half the period of the General Election in my Linlithgow constituency and other Scottish seats, and half campaigning in some thirty English marginal seats. So much has been written on the North-South divide, and the fact that great cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow have no representative of the governing party, that I need not dwell on what is since 11 June familiar ground. I wonder, however, whether everyone in England understands the extent to which the result in Scotland was determined by the immediate prospect of the community charge, or as it is now known even in the most fastidious financial circles, the ‘poll tax’. It is one thing to have sentences about a rather obscure ‘community charge’ buried in the Manifesto. It is quite another to be an early guinea-pig on whom an experiment is about to be conducted. The Scottish poll-tax legislation was actually through Parliament, and on the statute book. What in England was perceived as scaremongering when I spoke about the poll-tax was received in Scotland – rightly – as an all-too-imminent reality.’

Diary: Yesterday’s News

Tam Dalyell, 18 September 1986

One of the reasons I like being asked to write for the London Review of Books is that it is one of the few publications in Britain that allow a writer to return to old ground. Most papers insist on the semblance, at least, of some new slant, if not on new facts. Otherwise it’s yesterday’s news. The situation has, I believe, dire consequences for public life. Those in power come to believe that because the world is always ‘moving on’ they will not be held accountable for their actions. Chickens do not come home to roost any more.

Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Those who, maybe understandably, conduct their civil nuclear affairs with an occasional under-injection of candour should not be too quick to condemn the secretiveness of Russia. With a timing that is perfect in its irony, it has emerged this spring, thanks to the 30-year rule, that in 1957 Harold Macmillan, then Prime Minister, took a decision that would have done credit to the most reticent of regimes. Told that there had been a graphite fire at Windscale, Macmillan deemed it better that the British public should not know, and that the Irish, across the water, should not be informed. Horrifying, deceitful, wicked, many people would now say. But, are we, even with the benefit of hindsight, quite sure?

Floreat Brixton

Tam Dalyell, 5 December 1985

‘I didn’t learn much history at Eton, but one of the first things we were taught was that Henry VI founded Eton, his “College Roiall of oure Lady Eton”, in the year 1440.’ So says Mark Dixon in An Eton Schoolboy’s Album. He may or may not have learned much history, but somewhere along the line Dixon, who left Eton in 1980, has learned how to write in an entertaining and elegant way. I find it difficult to judge the impression it might make on the non-Etonian reader, because in spite of the glossary of Etonian lingo I suspect a corpus of knowledge about the place is necessary to understand that strange self-contained world on the banks of the Thames. The instant effect of Dixon’s photographs on one of my Labour Parliamentary colleagues who himself had left school at 16 was one of relief that his childhood had not been spent in such fraught circumstances.

Getting it right

Tam Dalyell, 18 July 1985

Without Richard Norton-Taylor of the Guardian, there would be no Belgrano affair, and doubtless Mr Clive Ponting OBE would be plying his way, ever upwards, in the Ministry of Defence. This is no exaggeration. Simply a statement of fact. I am in a position to know.

Shining Pink

Tam Dalyell, 23 May 1985

Harlech Television interviewed lately a burglar from Shrewsbury who was just out of jail. The burglar was adamant that if the burgling fraternity at Shrewsbury had found out that one of their number had ‘done that old girl in’, they would have been on the phone to the Police straight away – no messing. Shrewsbury burglars do not do things like assaulting defenceless old women. I believed him.’

Ponting bites back

Tam Dalyell, 4 April 1985

Contrary to the impression formed in some quarters, I do not know Clive Ponting well. Apart from a three-hour meeting in the presence of Brian Raymond, his remarkably gifted and industrious solicitor, in the early autumn of last year, I have never had a proper conversation with him. And that meeting related to the issue of whether I should lend my voluminous files and records of letters – some thirty-two boxes which would have taken up a large part of a pantechnicon – since he found himself in the position of having to defend himself without access to the Ministry of Defence records. I felt that I should keep my distance from Mr Ponting, and doubtless for his own good reasons Mr Ponting felt that he should steer clear of me. As Bruce Laughland, his counsel, and Jonathan Caplan, the deputy counsel, were to reiterate in court, they were counsel for Mr Ponting and not Mr Dalyell. There were differences. For example, before the trial Mr Ponting said he did not share my contention that the Belgrano was sunk, above all else, to scupper the Peruvian peace plan. Now, he displays an open mind on the role of the Peruvian proposals, and on the basis of information available to him from the Foreign Office, does not exclude the possibility that the former USS Phoenix, survivor of Pearl Harbour, was sunk by Mrs Thatcher, not because the 44-year-old threatened our boys, but because politically Mrs Thatcher could not afford peace.

Diary: The Belgrano Affair

Tam Dalyell, 7 February 1985

A campaigning politician is wise to be ever-alive to the possibility of being set-up and made to look ridiculous. In the light of the Belgrano affair, I do not doubt that I have accumulated a large and distinguished number of enemies, who would be only too delighted to see me slip on the ice. If a campaigner is proved hideously wrong in one matter, those who wish to destroy his case can gleefully point to the possibility of error in a related matter. My interest in the callous death of Miss Hilda Murrell – for such I was left in no doubt that it was by the courteous and concerned officers of West Mercia Police – was kindled by an anonymous phone call. An authoritative voice came through to my Commons Office-cum-Cupboard, and rather peremptorily told me to read an article in the New Statesman, ‘The Death of Miss Murrell’ by Judith Cook. Some two days later, since I read the New Statesman and the London Review of Books on trains and aircraft between London and Scotland, I glanced at Mrs Cook’s piece, and was arrested by the following passage: ‘Yet the Police told Rob Green, Miss Murrell’s nephew, that his aunt’s body was found much later, and then that it was found at 7 a.m. Rob Green took voluntary redundancy from the Navy a short time ago, having been a high-ranking Naval Intelligence officer with a crucial role in the Falklands War, for which he received a special citation. He does not consider himself a fanciful person.’ It dawned on me why, in all probability, I had been told by my anonymous caller – I still have no notion who it was – to read Judith Cook’s article.

Diary: Argentina in 1984

Tam Dalyell, 6 September 1984

In the sticky heat of the Palace of Westminster, waiting for divisions of the House of Commons at hours when sane men and women are in their beds, I have been perusing Argentina: The Malvinas and the End of Military Rule by Alejandro Dabat and Luis Lorenzano. The authors are Argentine Marxists living and working in Mexico. I shall be interested to see whether the reviewer for the London Review of Books judges the work to be cant. I believe myself that it is full of real insight. Understandably, Dabat and Lorenzano loathe the Argentine military. But the point they bring home is that it is wishful thinking to believe that after Alfonsin’s victory the military have simply gone away. They haven’t! Macho officers who have seen their seniors humiliated can be very dangerous indeed. In human affairs, the desire for revenge should never be underestimated. Reckless? Yes. Costly? Yes. An increase in human misery? Yes. An increase that will be seen as unacceptable? Not necessarily. The class, race and nationality which have produced some of the greatest racing drivers, from Juan Fangio on, and remarkably daring pilots during their first-ever modern war, are not simply going to accept defeat in one cup-tie. Besides, let us never forget that before the elections which swept Alfonsin to power, senior officers were telling the Anglo-Argentine community in Buenos Aires: ‘We can destabilise the elected government after two years or so.’

Operation Big Ear

Tam Dalyell, 3 May 1984

This is the advice I shall give to those of my Parliamentary friends who have an interest in the American military presence in Britain, but who may have neither the time nor the inclination to read a 340-page book. ‘Go to the Oriel Room in the Commons Library, and having got the Unsinkable Aircraft-Carrier, turn to pages 76 and 77. There you will find a map of all the American bases and installations in Britain. You and I are meant to be public representatives in this land, but I’ll bet you had no more notion than I had of the sheer scale of the United States presence.’ I doubt whether Government sources will be able to deny much that Campbell says, since as Field Marshal Lord Carver has put it, ‘Campbell does not rely on emotion or distortion.’ I have reservations about only one point of fact. At the beginning of his book, he says:

Small inconsistencies tend to be part of larger inconsistencies. Seemingly small untruths are often part of larger untruths. The discrepancies of fact and explanation in the Government’s account of the Prime Minister’s actions over the sinking of the General Belgrano are authoritatively considered by Desmond Rice and Arthur Gavshon. In Paragraph 110 of HMG’s own White Paper, ‘The Falklands Campaign: The Lessons’, we read: ‘On 2 May, HMS Conqueror detected the Argentine cruiser, General Belgrano, accompanied by two destroyers, sailing near to the total exclusion zone.’ This was the scenario presented to us, not only in the official White Paper, but in the Commander-in-Chief’s no less official report, and endorsed by the Prime Minister. Indeed, when Denis Healey, from the Opposition Front Bench, and I questioned Ministers, in the Monday and Tuesday Commons exchanges immediately after the Sunday sinking, we were given the impression that one of our submarines had come upon the Belgrano in a threatening position, and had understandably taken immediate action. And this is roughly what Parliament, press and people imagined had happened, until two months later, in early July, when the Conqueror returned home to Faslane on the West Coast of Scotland, and its captain began letting various cats out of various bags by revealing to the Scottish press corps that he had sunk the Belgrano on orders from Fleet Headquarters at Northwood. Now we find the submarine commander, Christopher Wreford-Brown DSO, saying in Our Falklands War:

Politician’s War

Tam Dalyell, 3 March 1983

In the opening paragraph of their important book on the Falklands War, Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins write: ‘So extraordinary an event was it that, even after men began to die, many of those taking part felt as if they had been swept away into fantasy, that the ships sinking and the guns firing round them had somehow escaped from a television screen in the living-room.’ In their final paragraph the authors say that had Britain left the Falklanders to their fate on 2 April, the British people’s respect for themselves and their confidence in their political and military leadership would have experienced a severe blow. They concede that colonial wars can have dangerous side-effects on the nations which fight them. A people can turn to jingoism as they watch a distant game, played on their behalf by professionals safely out of reach of homes and loved ones. Hastings and Jenkins conclude by opining that the British people were reassured by the way the services performed, and were pleased that a job that had to be done was done so well. National pride and self-confidence were renewed.

For ever Falkland?

Tam Dalyell, 17 June 1982

‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ I suggest that this is an appropriate motto, not of course for the unfortunate men of the Task Force, but for those who sent them to the South Atlantic. It characterises the whole operation – an operation, as I have tried to show in this journal, which was conceived in an emotional spasm, by the injured pride of the House of Commons, on that hysterical Saturday morning, 3 April 1982. A task force had to be assembled, because it had to be assembled, to do something about the dreadful Argentine Junta, who had taken advantage of our negligence in withdrawing the survey vessel, HMS Endurance, with her peashooter of a gun. No blow-mouth, that Saturday morning, had the remotest idea of what he, or more particularly she – and there was not only Mrs Thatcher, by a long chalk, in this latter category – wanted to do, once the task force had arrived, and, by appearing on the horizon, had automatically shunted the dago intruders out of our island. No one had the haziest notion of what their rational, long-term objective should be. When I interrupted Mrs Thatcher’s opening speech to inquire who our friends were in South America on this issue, she could not name one, even then. But MPs collectively were in no mood to care.

A Falklands Polemic

Tam Dalyell, 20 May 1982

Never underestimate the importance of fortuitous timing in the development of events. Governments and nations can get onto a motorway, and then find to their alarm that they are on a journey on which they never intended to travel, but from which there is no acceptable exit. We are faced with a shooting war in the South Atlantic that few British politicans thought could, should or would occur.



24 August 1995

It is surely not truncating Tom Nairn’s article (LRB, 24 August) to the point of distortion, to suggest that he makes the underlying assumption that most Scots now want the break-up of Britain. We don’t. We never did this century. And there is something else. Your readers might like to know that many Scots have second thoughts when nightly on the TV news we see the results of the break-up...

Politician’s War

3 March 1983

SIR: I do not mind being called a ‘knave in the Parliamentary pack’ by Brian Bond in his review of One Man’s Falklands (LRB, 3 March). I do mind a ‘military historian’s’ misconceptions.My Parliamentary friends and I did not ‘snipe’. We conducted a full-blooded Parliamentary Opposition to the dispatch of the Task Force, which went largely unreported until...

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Seductive Intentions

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