Election '97: Ancient Labour stalwart confined to home turf

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