Tam Dalyell to step down as MP after four decades

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Tam Dalyell, the House of Commons' longest-serving MP and a thorn in the side of both Labour and Conservative governments, announced yesterday that he is to stand down at the next general election.

Tony Blair paid tribute to the 71-year-old Father of the House and Labour MP for Linlithgow, who was first elected in 1962. But the Prime Minister and other ministers will privately be relieved not to face tricky Commons questions from the independent-minded and maverick - if rather obsessive - Mr Dalyell.

In the wider world, he is best known for his relentless pursuit of Margaret Thatcher over the sinking of the Argentinian warship, the General Belgrano, during the Falklands War. He was expelled from the Commons for calling Baroness Thatcher a liar during the Westland helicopter crisis and refusing to withdraw such unparliamentary language.

It was Mr Dalyell who invented the "West Lothian question" - named after the first constituency he represented - when he questioned the right of Scottish MPs to vote at Westminster on purely English issues, while English MPs, after devolution, could not vote on some purely Scottish ones. After the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, Mr Dalyell defied government whips, saying that he no longer had the "brass neck" to vote in the Commons on purely English matters.

In recent years, he has been best known as a principled anti-war MP who opposed intervention in Kosovo and became one of Mr Blair's most vociferous critics over last year's Iraq war, and has harried him since about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Mr Dalyell had also opposed the Gulf War in 1991, before which he went to Baghdad to negotiate with Tariq Aziz, the then Iraqi Foreign Minister.

Another high-profile campaign was Mr Dalyell's attempt to clear Libya's Gadaffi regime from any involvement in the Lockerbie air disaster. He sparked controversy last year when he claimed British policy on the Middle East was "unduly influenced" by a cabal of Blair aides who were Jewish, including Lord Levy, the Prime Minister's envoy to the region, and Peter Mandelson.

A scientist and columnist on New Scientist magazine, Mr Dalyell served as Labour's frontbench spokesman on science from 1980 to 1982, but resigned because of the party's support for the Falklands conflict. Educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, where he led the Conservative Association before switching to Labour, he was parliamentary aide to the cabinet minister Richard Crossman in the 1960s.

His popularity in the Labour Party was evident when he was elected to its ruling national executive committee (NEC) in 1986. But he was wrongly seen as a left-winger rather than his own man, and he was dropped from the left-wing Campaign Group's slate of candidates the following year for not "voting the ticket". He lost his NEC seat as a result.

Brian Fairley, his agent, said yesterday: "He is going at the next election. It is mainly because of his age, although boundary changes are a factor."

Mr Blair said in a statement that Parliament would be a very different place without Mr Dalyell. "Tam Dalyell has made a unique contribution to the life and work of the House of Commons," he said. "He has made his mark on many of the most controversial political debates of modern times, sometimes at the very centre of the controversy himself. Fiercely independent, Tam's persistence in pursuing causes close to his heart is legendary." Ian McCartney, the Labour Party chairman, praised Mr Dalyell as "an extraordinary single-minded campaigner". He added: "He has earned huge respect across the party divide. He is a parliamentarian of unparalleled standing." Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said Parliament would sorely miss one of its most substantial contributors. "He is one of those people who give the business of politics a good name," he said.

IN HIS OWN WORDS

"I have never flinched at boring people."

"I am Ancient Labour. I want nothing from the party leadership, so it cannot control me."

"In which direction was she sailing at the time?" - his repeated question about the Argentinian ship, the General Belgrano, sunk in the Falklands War

"My view is that Parliament has been deceived" -- on the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq

"I am one of comparatively few - a dwindling number of MPs - who have actually worn the Queen's uniform, done gunnery and experienced the smell of cordite. Perhaps we are a bit less relaxed about unleashing war than those who have never been in a military situation."

"Devolution does equal separation."

"I am not going to be silenced" -- his response to threats to deselect him over his opposition to Scottish devolution

"I wonder if you would care to join me for a cup of tea and Kit Kat."

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