The Sketch: A lesson from the man with a trolley full of principles

THERE IS something magnificently senatorial about Tam Dalyell. Not the grey cardigan, nor the green foam cushion that he lays on the benches before sitting down, both of which give him a faintly eccentric air, as if he might enter the chamber one day pushing a supermarket trolley loaded with old clothes and embarrassing documents.

But his mournful dignity when addressing the House conjures an almost classical sense of melancholy. He surveys the Labour benches like an ancient Roman contemplating the depredations of lead plumbing and high living. Sometimes he rages against the dereliction of the old ideal, but more often he admonishes his colleagues with a sorrowing and indefatigable gravity.

Yesterday provided the perfect arena for his skills in this mode, as he proposed a Bill designed to oblige the Government to seek endorsement from Parliament before embarking on any open-ended venture of international discipline.

Mr Dalyell wants to record a protest, and it's difficult to think of any human agency that could deflect him when he is so minded. "The first quality is not to mind being a bore," he has said about his weevil ability to tunnel into the dense hardwood of ministerial prevarication. Quite often, there is a muted groan when he stands to speak but there was nothing boring about his performance yesterday, which converted a distracted, desultory atmosphere in the House into one still with attention.

He first took the high ground of seniority, pointing out that those with first-hand experience of war and bombing might take a different view of it than those "inoculated against weapons of mass destruction by watching Indiana Jones".

And then he urged the Prime Minister to look to his theology books again. Mr Blair had "set out his stall as a Christian Socialist" he noted. Honest Tone might have all the big names but his Aquinas and Augustine didn't smell quite right to Mr Dalyell.

Most effectively, he presented this as a matter of parliamentary privilege rather than policy disagreement, the kind of approach, it seems, that can subdue all party enmities. Even Mrs Thatcher, he said, had sought the endorsement of Parliament before dispatching the task force to the Falklands. She might have sunk the Belgrano but she asked permission first. Here too, "the pros and cons should have been hammered out on the anvil of parliamentary opinion".

You could tell from the uncontested "Aye" that sounded after his speech that his had been a clean, well-aimed stroke.

A less distinguished demonstration of parliamentary rhetoric had been given earlier by James Clappison, who put a Private Notice Question about the release of sex offenders under curfew notices. Paul Boateng briskly cut down the kite he was flying by making clear that not one pervert would emerge from prison tomorrow. At this point Mr Clappison should have expressed his contentment and sat down, but a lot of work had gone into his supplementary question and he was loath to abandon it merely because it had been answered.

Mr Boateng, who usually bobs and nods like a novelty dog, became a freeze- frame of bemusement. Mr Clappison noticed his uncharacteristic paralysis and was unwisely encouraged by it.

"The minister's looking perplexed!" he said cockily, just before asking him to tell the House whether any sex offenders would be among those curfewed. Mr Boateng finally twitched into life to explain that he was only trying to work out why he had to give the same answer twice. "No!" He continued. "None! Not one! Not any! - I do hope the Honourable Gentleman has heard me."

"Thank you," gasped Madam Speaker, as though she had been surprised by this unequivocal full stop.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate