Election '97: Ancient Labour stalwart confined to home turf

In past campaigns veteran MP Tam Dalyell has been in great demand. Not this time

Tam Dalyell is "ancient Labour". The label is his own, offered with a certain mischief as he goes from door to plastic door on Bathgate's Limefield estate, a maze of 1970s boxes overlooking the Edinburgh-Glasgow motorway and the spoil heaps of redundant shale mines.

For six days a week this is how Westminster's most dogged questioner will spend the campaign, on the knocker or in the market place, but never out of his Linlithgow constituency. In sharp contrast to previous elections, there are no invitations to go and lend his weight as a Labour veteran of 35 years in Parliament to contenders in marginal seats or at party rallies.

"They don't want to import trouble. I'm ancient Labour, I want nothing from the party leadership, so they cannot control me," says Mr Dalyell, who will be 65 in August. "They", of course, are the managers and spin- doctors of the Blair court.

He recoils from the circus antics and news manipulation of today's presidential- style campaigning. But he passionately wants to sit on the government side of the Commons again and accepts the potential for embarrassment if he were to air his rebel views too widely.

The letter Mr Dalyell leaves at every house emphasises party policy on solid Labour issues such as the National Health Service and the minimum wage, but adds his strong personal belief in a European single currency. However, it makes no mention of devolution or the great conundrum he authored 20 years ago - the West Lothian Question.

A stickler for detail, Mr Dalyell points out between doorsteps that it was actually another anti-devolutionist, Enoch Powell, who coined the phrase during the marathon sessions on the 1970s home rule Bills.

Mr Dalyell had gone on at length about how he, as a Westminster MP, would be able to vote on education matters affecting Blackburn, Lancashire, but have no say on education in another Blackburn in his own constituency. Mr Powell intervened with studied weariness to say the House was seized of the point, the penny had dropped, and henceforth it would be known as the West Lothian Question.

So would he fight Tony Blair's Scottish Parliament Bill with the same unflagging resolution? "I shall vote for the second reading because it needs to be discussed - and I shall be in my place every day," he says. Naked threats would be totally out character. In a morning of doorstep conversations, devolution is raised only once when 74-year-old John Coull recalls the "the Blackburn question" and tells Mr Dalyell his criticism of home rule remains "just as true now as when you said it".

Tam Dalyell has represented the area since 1962, when he beat the Scottish Nationalist leader, Billy Wolfe, in a by-election. The SNP has been the challenger ever since and has a strong presence on the council.

Kenny MacAskill, a 40-year old Edinburgh lawyer, pushed the SNP's vote above 30 per cent in 1992 and is hopeful that suspicion of a "smarmy" Mr Blair and exasperation with Mr Dalyell's idiosyncrasies will sway more old Labour voters on 1 May. But he still needs a swing of 9.5 per cent.

As the Labour Party has changed around Mr Dalyell, so too has his constituency. Once dominated by mining and industries such as British Leyland's massive Bathgate plant and the Atlas foundry at Armadale - where steel plates were made for the Navy's dreadnoughts - the big employers are now electronics firms like Motorola and Sun Microsystems. Mass factory meetings for candidates are history.

Dalyells have lived at The Binns near the old county town of Linlithgow since the 17th century. "Tam" is named after a soldier who fought for the Royalists at Naseby and was one of the few people to escape from the Tower of London. He also formed the Scots Greys, in which his descendant did National Service as a trooper. It became the Scots Dragoons.

Mr Dalyell campaigns in his regimental tie under a comfortable sweater and tweed jacket. The mark of a military past is apparently useful for a man known for his opposition to wars from the Falklands to the Gulf. He points out the tie, and drops the name of Field Marshal Lord Bramall, in a doorstep encounter with a 59-year-old man summarily made redundant by the Ministry of Defence and turfed out of his tied home. After listening intently, he says: "Look, I promise nothing, but I will damn well find out about this." Another obsessive Tam campaign is about to be launched.

Mr Dalyell was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, but wears it lightly on the predominantly working-class estate. Though his wife, Kathleen, is a trustee of the housing association that owns the boxes, they are not to his taste as a heritage buff. "No Charles Rennie Mackintosh doors here," he says. Courteous to a fault, Mr Dalyell does not ask people to vote for him or even inquire how they are going to vote. "I think it is slightly rude, but then as I say, I am ancient Labour." When votes are promised anyway he responds with a grateful "Bless you".

Doorstep controversy looms just once on Limefield when he returns to a house to tell a woman that if she is pregnant she should not be smoking. "After 29 years as a columnist for the New Scientist, I do know something about this," he says.

Lecturing would-be constituents on their personal habits is probably not part of new Labour's charm offensive. But even confining the maverick to his home territory carries a certain risk.

A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEpic YouTube video features boundary-pushing staging of a playground gun massacre
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

.Mid Level VB.Net, C# Developer wanted - SURREY - £35k - £40k

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Mid Level VB...

Nuclear Project Planner: Sellafield Sites

£40000 - £55000 per annum + Car, Fuel Card, Healthcare + More: Progressive Rec...

M&E Construction Planning Manager: Surrey

£60000 - £90000 per annum + Car, Pension, Healthcare: Progressive Recruitment:...

M&E Construction Planner Solihull

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Car, Healthcare, Pensions: Progressive Recruitment...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star