Look Who's Talking to Tim Wapshott: I'm really a mainstay, not a maverick: Tam Dalyell reflects on life, politics and his reputation after 32 years in the House of Commons

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN OCTOBER I had a hip replacement operation in a 13-day turnaround at the excellent Princess Margaret Rose Hospital, Edinburgh. I had been in uncontainable pain and the doctors were very blunt with me. 'Look,' they said, 'there's a 10-15 per cent chance of your snuffing it and causing a by-election. We'll do our best but we can't be sure while you're under anaesthetic, losing that amount of blood - at least four pints.'

For me it was one of those decisions that is easy because quality of life was at stake. I was static, no use to man or beast. There were 12 people on the ward and we 'hippies' had very little pain; the person easily in the worst pain, with his elbow, was Rocky, a forestry worker.

I used to love playing squash but I can't now. My wife, Kathleen, bless her, to whom I've been happily married for 31 years, got a bit fed up with me playing. She thought it was vanity and she may have been right.

It was certainly a health risk. There was a terrible occasion when we had a match against the Metropolitan Police. Ray Carter, then an MP for one of the Birmingham seats, got together a team and the police produced one of their best sides. The guy I was playing against was 25 and better than I'd ever been. After that I played 'gentle' squash, if there is such a thing; then it was pushed out completely.

This month I celebrated 32 years as an MP and, if anything, I suppose the lesson I've learnt is not to try to be a universal expert. In 32 years I've never asked a question on housing, immigration or the many aspects of police matters. I'm extremely selective.

But I would still bring the troops out of Ulster tomorrow, although I am in the small minority and I do emphasise that. The British Army in Ireland won't solve the historic problems. I know there would be terrible bloodshed but the alternative is to go on and on. And I ferociously support nuclear power. I think it is a very green stance. If you want to save the rainforest then you get the Brazilian power stations actually to work in Angora and elsewhere.

Also, when first elected, I represented six coalmines and I'm not going to be lectured by greens or anybody else. The price of coal is pneumoconiosis: I visited miners who couldn't get up their own staircases. Sometimes the price was life itself, and I've attended too many funerals to have harangues on the need not to keep coalmines open.

I have had a fulfilling life. Every day has new interests. My career hasn't really differed from expectations, because I didn't have any. I'm a day-to- day creature. I've always thought that life is so full of unexpected situations that it really is no good planning. Kathleen gets rather exasperated, and wishes I was a more assiduous planner.

I don't know if my colleagues would call me a 'mainstay' of the Labour Party but I'd accept it as flattery; I'm all for 'mainstays'. And it isn't actually so wide of the mark. I'm a very loyal party guy and refute being called a maverick. I'm a 'mainstay' in everything other than a few subjects where I think I know more than my colleagues - at the moment, Libya and Iraq. The answer has to be to lift sanctions and reveal that Lockerbie was a terrible crime but wasn't Libyan-inspired. The Libyan government certainly wasn't the prime mover. That was Ali Akbar Mohtashami, the Iranian Minister of the Interior at the time.

I have, before now, feared for my own safety. I once received some ugly threats. A few years ago I had the unpleasant experience of being mugged in Horseferry Road. I was walking back late at night with my radio around my neck. A guy came up from behind, pinned me against a wall and said, 'Your life or your money]' Having been a teenage boxer I had a boxer's reaction. I swung at him and he swung at me.

The fight wouldn't have gone very long. I was 55, he was 25. Fortunately, a car drove up and I screeched, 'I'm being mugged.' The driver shouted that he had reported it to the police. And with that the guy ran off. Heaven knows what could have happened.

I wake up to Radio Scotland or, more often, Radio 4. My bathtime is geared to The World Tonight while my shaving time is geared to Today.

I'm the opposite of a vain man but I'm not the worst-dressed, although I do have a strange gait, the despair of every bloody sergeant major that ever was. That's because one leg is longer than the other, which was the cause of the hip operation. I'm afraid my mama, whom I love dearly, had a design fault in her.

Tam Dalyell is the Labour MP for Linlithgow, in Scotland, and was a Member of the European Parliament, 1975-9. He has often been a thorn in the side of those in high office.

(Photograph omitted)