Thumbscrews won't work on Bluidy Tam

Labour must learn how to handle the irrepressible Member for Linlithgow
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How can we tell a shrewd and knowing minister from a foolish one? The shrewd minister thinks ahead, and never underrates the Commons. In particular, such people have a recurrent nightmare; they dream that they are being pursued in Parliament over some misdemeanour or illogicality by Thomas Dalyell of the Binns, better known as Tam.

Being Tam's quarry must be horrible, a far crueller and more prolonged fate than that of a Quantock stag or Leicestershire fox. As in all nightmares, the pursuit is in ponderous but remorseless slow motion. The stricken, panting minister is followed by a deadly and ceaseless patter of courteously worded questions, oral and written. And whether it has been over the sinking of the Belgrano, the sacking of civil servants or the fate of the United Kingdom, the Linlithgow bloodhound tends to draw blood.

Indeed, his most famous ancestor was known as ``Bluidy Tam'' (an epithet rumoured still to be in use among the Scottish Labour Party). This 17th- century soldier of fortune, and sometime commander of the Russian army, pursued Scottish Covenanters with the same doggedness that, 300 years later, his namesake reserves for Scottish devolutionists. He is also rumoured to have introduced the thumbscrews to Britain - something some former Tory ministers will find no difficulty in believing.

A sense of history is essential if we are to understand the fascinating struggle about to envelop the government as it fights for Scottish devolution. For Tam, Old Etonian socialist, resident of an ancestral pile, science enthusiast, Independent obituarist, author and non-Versace-style dresser, is returning to one of his earlier great enthusiasms, the campaign against Scottish devolution.

This is not only the man who gave name to the ``West Lothian question'' - why should Scottish MPs be able to vote on England-only issues while, under devolution, English MPs cannot vote on Scotland-only issues (West Lothian is his constituency). He also helped, with Robin Cook, to lead the ``No'' campaign against the Callaghan government's devolution plans in 1979 after having spent night after night harassing ministers, including the late John Smith, over the legislation in the Commons. And that, quite clearly, is what Tam would like to repeat. Literally - the image of devolution being ``a motorway without exit to the break-up of the UK'', which he used on the BBC Today programme yesterday morning, was one of his favourite parliamentary metaphors in the late Seventies.

So how should the Government react to this threat? Many young New Labour MPs, lacking any historical perspective, will be merely dismissive. A quick referendum, followed by a guillotine motion on the subsequent legislation, means that Tam is unable to wear the new government down with questions and objections, as he did before.

Certainly, the attempts to neutralise Parliamentary opposition make things harder. But Tam will find a way. Just as 20 years ago, I expect, the most damaging attacks will not come from the Tory Opposition benches but from Tam. If ministers think he is going to subside into grumpy silence or fail to attract media notice, they are making a very serious error.

An alternative tack, to threaten him with expulsion or deselection, would prove equally fruitless. Tam's ardent Unionism means that he will see this coming struggle as far more important than the question of his own political survival. Further, he will be able to point to the fact that the party is trying to deprive him of the freedom to dissent which others, notably the current Foreign Secretary, enjoyed last time round.

In short, he cannot be ignored and he will not be shut up. Any attempt to discipline him will go disastrously wrong. Like it or not, Tam is going to become a national figure again.

The final Labour response I hear is that he will make no difference. This seems to me complacent. There are, to put it mildly, some difficult devolutionary moments ahead for the Government. The brilliant wheeze of holding a double referendum - a vote on the principle of a Scottish Parliament, and a separate vote on its tax-varying powers - always seemed too clever by half. In June 1996, when the promise was made, it seemed to take a little of the sting out of Tory attacks. But it did so by setting up a future booby trap. Now Tony Blair finds a crucial question is out of the hands of the Commons, which he controls. What would he do if the Government were to win one vote, on devolution itself, and lose the second, on the tax-raising powers?

That would leave his plans in total disarray. Not only would it demolish ministers' arguments about devolution returning some tax-and-spend responsibility to Scottish politics. It would also destroy the longer-term plan by English Labour ministers to use the Edinburgh Parliament's ability to raise Scottish income tax by up to 3p in the pound to compensate for a future cut in the block grant to Scotland. It would be bad for the new assembly, bad for the Scottish political culture and bad for the Union, since it would fuel English suspicion.

Such an outcome remains possible. There is concern in Scotland that the pro-devolution campaign has been slow to get off the ground. A ``yes- no'' outcome would present the Blair government with its first serious political crisis. This issue wasn't cut and dried by the election landslide, and Dalyell could yet make a difference.

The right answer to the Linlithgow Question - what shall we do about Tam? - is to engage his arguments vigorously and openly, and to defeat them. Throughout the Thatcher administration, Dalyell performed an essential questioning function. He was good for democracy. The same applies with another big-majority government today, and he must not be repressed, bullied or shouted down.

His arguments are, I believe, basically wrong. It is not devolution that threatens to break up the UK, but a steady rise in Scottish nationalist sentiment, which a sensible measure of self-government can quell.

But the case needs to be made much more vigorously than it has been so far. Donald Dewar aside, too many members of the Cabinet seem to be half- embarrassed by their own administration's agenda for Scotland. Tam himself says that he has many covert supporters inside the administration. Ministers are proposing a momentous change in the shape of power in Britain, yet they don't sound overly enthusiastic about it - or even terribly interested.

It is time they changed their tune. If, in September, and then later in Parliament, Scottish devolution turns into a bitter public fight between a small platoon of hotly committed dissidents and a lukewarm, apologetic administration, I wouldn't bet my house on the outcome. If the Government wants to be sure of winning, it has to understand that there is a battle of ideas on, and it hasn't yet won. Nor is this simply about devolution: a defeat over Scotland would be a stunning defeat for New Labour that would reverberate throughout the UK.

Single-minded passion is a considerable force in politics. Tam has it. He can be beaten, out in the open, by the logic and passion of his opponents. But Government fixers should note: he cannot be beaten by sneers, averted heads or the threat of his ancestor's thumbscrews.