A Tribute to Tony Benn

This morning brought with it the sad news that former Labour politician and cabinet minister, Tony Benn has died. Whatever one thought of his beliefs, it cannot be argued that Mr Benn was a powerhouse in British politics – a parliamentarian in the true sense of the word who never stopped campaigning. In his own words, “Say what you believe and believe what you say”, and it can honestly be said that he never wavered from this maxim in over 60 years in public life.

How many of these truly great characters are left in the British political landscape?

So in tribute to someone who will be much missed, we are posting this afternoon an extract from The Importance of Being Awkward by his long-time friend, colleague, and sometime opponent, Tam Dalyell.

Well, it was indeed a bad start and it got worse when the leader
of the delegation embarked on a long-winded groan about
the perceived iniquities of local authorities and, in particular,
Labour-controlled education authorities. Crossman’s patience
threshold was pretty low at the best of times and he could not
or did not conceal his irritation by looking out of the window
when the NUT Leader was in full flow. She rebuked him and he
became cringe-makingly rude. The delegation broke off abruptly
as a Division Bell went and, by the time we returned from voting,
the NUT nursery delegation had left.
I was told later by the general secretary, Sir Ronald Gould,
that he and the president of the NUT would not have made an
undue fuss but the representative at the meeting of the North East
of England was mightily offended by Crossman’s boorishness and
bad manners. She complained bitterly to the NUT-sponsored
MPs for her area and in particular to Ted Short, then Deputy
Chief Whip, and to Ernie Popplewell, a National Union of
Railwaymen (NUR) veteran whom it was unwise to upset. They
went to Harold Wilson and said, ‘We cannot possibly have Dick
responsible for education.’
Reluctantly, as he told me years later after Crossman’s death,
Wilson decided that the antagonism of Short, Popplewell and a
whole cohort of MPs formerly deeply involved in education was
not worth the candle so, at the last moment, he swapped the
portfolios of Crossman and Michael Stewart, who had done four
years’ assiduous work on housing and local government problems
in preparation for office. The ostensible reason – the one put
out to the press – was different and stated that, with a slender
majority of five seats and the prospect of a second General
Election, it was better to have the dynamic Crossman in housing
where an impact could begin to be made before going to the polls.
I thought this was a pretty spurious reason but that was the
Michael Stewart, meanwhile, was a person with a Rolls-Royce
mind and a first in Greats at Oxford. But ‘Black Michael’, as he
was known, had no intention, as the incoming Secretary of State
for Education and Science, to follow up the work of the TWTs.
98 the importance of being awkward
The result was that many of those who had been excited to be
involved and had hoped that their relationship with the Labour
Party, nurtured in opposition, would continue in government
became disillusioned. Worse was to come. As the first minister for
science, Wilson appointed someone who at best had been on
the periphery of the TWTs – C. P. Snow had a reputation as a
novelist for dealing with problems of science and the arts but he
had no standing among serious scientists.
For the Department of Education, Wilson did choose someone
as minister of state who had been pivotal in the TWTs – Vivian
Bowden, Vice-Chancellor of University of Manchester Institute
of Science and Technology (UMIST), who was ennobled as Lord
Bowden of Chesterfield. He was a distinguished and innovative
electrical engineer who had impressed us all with his visionary
ideas on how Britain could do far better in translating our
ground-breaking ideas in pure and academic science into commercially
profitable industrial development. It was a matter of
dismay that so many scientific avenues, pioneered in the United
Kingdom, had been exploited abroad.
Bowden was frustrated from the week he entered the government.
He had reached a modus operandi with Crossman and
Stewart he knew not – they simply did not mesh. If I recount a sad
little tale, all the more so for being comic, it is to illustrate that those
unelected persons, spatchcocked into government without experience
of politics, often come to grief. To start with, professional
politicians resent ministerial office being snatched away from their
number and handed on a plate to persons who have not canvassed
one let alone thousands of doorsteps. Secondly, they have little
idea of the notion of governmental or, indeed, Cabinet responsibility
and the workings of Whitehall. In March 1965, after he had
been in office for four months, I ran into Vivian Bowden in a
corridor in Westminster. ‘How’s it going, Vivian?’ I asked.
‘I’ve just sacked my secretary.’
‘What was wrong with her? Was she slow at typing or not good
at filing?’
‘You don’t understand, I’ve sacked my permanent secretary!’
‘What!’ I gasped. ‘You, Vivian, have sacked Sir Bruce Fraser?’
parliament: the 1960s 99
‘Yes, I’ve sacked Fraser!’
Now, in 1965, Sir Bruce Fraser KCB was one of the grandest
mandarins in Whitehall and in an age when mandarins were
virtually untouchable.
‘But what did Michael Stewart [his immediate Cabinet boss]
‘Stewart?’ said Bowden, somewhat contemptuously. ‘Haven’t
consulted him!’
‘And Harold? What did the Prime Minister say?’
‘Harold? Haven’t consulted him.’
A lowly minister of state was naive in the extreme to suppose he
could dismiss a permanent secretary. Within a fortnight Bowden
had left the government, returning to UMIST to resume his wellreceived
vice-chancellorship. And, as a lowly PPS, I continued
my education in the ways of the Civil Service at the hands of that
remarkable ‘Beatrice Webb-type’ lady, Dame Evelyn Sharp – the
Dame of the later Crossman Diaries – and her senior colleagues,
(Sir) James Jones and (Sir) James Waddell.
Mutual respect between politicians and civil servants was more
evident in those days than in the twenty-first century. In my
opinion, the rot set in during the mid 1980s when a triumphant
Margaret Thatcher began to ask whether a civil servant, due to
be appointed to a sensitive senior position, was ‘one of us’.
The reason I was chosen as his aide is that Crossman, author of
Plato Today and other books, had little contact with the scientific
community and heard that I had organised for some of my
parliamentary colleagues to visit the Laboratory of Molecular
Biology at the Medical Research Council’s Cambridge Unit. This
came in the wake of the glamour of the Nobel Prizes awarded to
Max Perutz and Sir John Cowdery Kendrew (for their work on
proteins and nucleic acids) and to Francis Crick and James D.
Watson (for their work on the double helix). The Nobel laureates,
joined by future prizewinners Sydney Brenner and Aaron Klug,
explained their work and took us on a tour of the laboratory.
After a congenial lunch, I asked Perutz if he and his colleagues
would care to come to a meal in the House of Commons. ‘No,’ he
said, ‘it is kind of you but we are very committed to our
100 the importance of being awkward
schedules.’ He paused. ‘But we have three German researchers
who are going back to Frankfurt next week. Before they go to
Heathrow, they would, I think, love to come to Westminster.
Would you give them lunch?’
It was arranged. Saying goodbye to the researchers in the
Central Lobby, I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. It was James
Hoy, Labour MP for Leith and later a fisheries minister in the first
Wilson Government. ‘I want you to meet my guests, Kathleen
Wheatley and her friend, Eileen Murdoch. Kathleen was canvassing
for you during your West Lothian by-election.’ I thought,
‘That’s funny. Had I not written a personal thank you to all the
helpers who had signed the books in the various committee
rooms?’ Kathleen was the daughter of John Wheatley QC, law
officer and Lord Advocate in Attlee’s Labour government and,
subsequently, a Judge of the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Clerk
and chairman of the Royal Commission on Local Government in
Scotland (some 40 years later, Kathleen herself was to be a Royal
Commission chairman). Surely I would have remembered if I had
written to the daughter of a well-known judge of the High Court!
Never mind the great-niece of John Wheatley, Red Clydesider
and Minister of Health in the first Labour government of 1924.
It was love at first sight – on my part but not on hers. It
transpired that she had not signed any helpers’ book in her dash
to get back to Edinburgh rather than travel back with the others
to Glasgow. Moreover, it further transpired that most definitely I
had not been her preferred candidate. Kathleen was teaching at
St Augustine’s Secondary School in Glasgow, alongside Arthur
Houston who had been on the shortlist at the Labour Party
selection conference. Having been unsuccessful, he most generously
said to his Labour Party colleagues, ‘We must go across to
West Lothian and make sure that the Labour candidate is
elected.’ (That attitude epitomised the spirit of the Labour Party
in Scotland in those days.)
It was, by some standards these days, a whirlwind romance. In
April 1963, Kathleen and I did not know each other. On 26
December 1963, we were married. To think that, if I had seen off
Perutz’s researchers on their way to Germany five minutes earlier
parliament: the 1960s 101
or one minute later, the next five decades would have been very
different. Kathleen and I might never have met.
With Perutz, Kendrew and Brenner, I was to have a lifelong
telephone relationship. Both for my work in the Commons and
for the purposes of accuracy in my New Scientist column, I would
seek the views of Perutz on science policy matters, Kendrew on
defence (he later became scientific adviser to the Ministry of
Defence) and Brenner on medical research matters.
My engagement to Kathleen was not without incident. Sam
Campbell, stalwart of the Orange Order and then secretary of
Midlothian Labour Party, publicly complained that the Church
of Scotland MP for West Lothian was marrying a Roman
Catholic. This caused much consternation in the world of Labour
politics in Scotland! Kathleen’s mother, Nancy Nichol, was the
forthright and down-to-earth lady whose portrait (by authoress
Dorothy Dunnett) hangs in The Binns dining room and who was
not Catholic. I was deeply fond of her – no man’s children having
a better grandmother. After a convent education in Aberdeen, at
the Convent of the Sacred Heart, which did not suit Kathleen’s
rebellious character, and an honours degree in history at the
University of Edinburgh, she took her first teaching job at the
1,700-pupil St Augustine’s in the Springburn district of Glasgow.
Having cut her teeth there, she was appointed by Miss Steel,
headmistress of James Gillespie’s in Edinburgh, who presided
over a school where an amalgam of teachers provided the model
for Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie.
It was a testimony to the affection in which she was held that,
when we emerged from our wedding at St Peter’s, Morningside,
which was conducted by Father Walter Glancy, a prominent
member of the City of Edinburgh Education Committee, Gillespie’s
girls were there in force to wish her well and throw confetti
(I reckon Miss Brodie would have been pleased). After a small
teetotal wedding – my father-in-law abhorred drink, the cause of
so many of the problems which came before him on the Bench –
we left for the airport to fly on honeymoon to Egypt.
There was dual thinking behind the choice of 26 December for
the wedding. First, the inevitable General Election of 1964 was
102 the importance of being awkward
unlikely to be called in January but could start in late February, if
Sir Alec Douglas-Home were so minded. Secondly, when I went
to Luxor alone as a young teacher taking the chance of a visit to
Egypt, I was befriended by fellow guests at the hotel, Tor Gjesdal,
a Norwegian engineer working as a very senior executive official
for UNESCO, and his wife. Gjesdal was in Upper Egypt to
finalise the plans whereby the Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu
Simbel was to be raised so that it would not be submerged in the
rising waters caused by the dams on the Nile which were then
being constructed. Gjesdal said, ‘Get to Abu Simbel before the
construction. For all the good that UNESCO hopes to do to save
this wonderful monument, magical in the setting sun, it will not
be quite the same.’
Besides, it would not have been sensible for Kathleen and me
to go to Upper Egypt between March and October, when the
heat at Karnak and the Valley of the Kings can reach 135 degrees
Fahrenheit. So, with a kindly parting shot from John Wheatley,
my father-in-law of four hours, ‘She’s yours now – look after her!’
and jocular ribald comments from Kathleen’s younger brothers –
John, Patrick, Tony and Michael – we set off for Edinburgh
Airport and got on to the plane for London. Suddenly, the fog
came down, as it so often does in the Forth Valley. For the only
time in my life, once seated and ready to take off, we had to leave
the plane – the Viscount turboprop of those days did not have the
equipment to negotiate even limited visibility. The only thing for
it was to go to Waverley Station, get bacon and eggs in the cafe´
and, since the Night Scotsman was fully booked, get a couple of
spare second-class sleeping berths on the ‘Milk Train’ calling
at Galashiels, Melrose, St Boswell’s, Hawick, Newcastleton,
Carlisle, Oxenholme and all stations to Preston before continuing
to London. It was a pretty unsettled night.
Somehow, by the skin of our teeth, we caught our booked flight
to Cairo. There we were met by a smiling Dr Mustapha Hafez, a
senior official of the Egyptian science ministry.
Let me digress for a moment. I have always found it difficult to
switch off. I suppose MPs can travel incognito and without fuss
but certainly not in countries where a visa is required, or was
parliament: the 1960s 103
required in 1962, such as Egypt, Indonesia or Iran. The authorities
wanted know all about me – understandable as only seven
years had elapsed since Eden attacked Nasser over Suez. Often
they want to show an MP and his wife their country. In those
days, a British MP in Egypt was a rare species. Naturally, we had
paid for our flight and our accommodation but Dr Hafez had a
programme for us in his pocket:
Day 1: You will see agricultural developments in Liberation
Province and means of finding water other than by the
Day 2: You will visit the eye clinic in Alexandria and meet
businessmen concerned with the export of cotton.
Day 3: You will go to the steel works in Helwan.
Day 4: You can go to Sakkara and the Pyramids.
My bride was magnificent and rose to the occasion but, on
Day 5, even her jaw dropped a little. As a courtesy, we went to
call on the British Ambassador, the tall, erect, distinguished figure
of Sir Harold Beeley, a leading Arabist of the Foreign Office, who
welcomed us.
After a minimum of small talk, Sir Harold turned to Kathleen
and said, ‘Mrs Dalyell, which hotel are you staying at?’
‘A new one – the El Borg.’
‘Mrs Dalyell, what room number are you?’
‘Well, Mrs Dalyell, I think I ought to tell you that we know that
all the 01 and 02 rooms in the El Borg are bugged.’
Given the nature of our disturbed first night as a married
couple, it dawned on us that our first-night intimacies were duly
recorded in the archives of the United Arab Republic as Egypt
and Syria then were. Alas, this conclusion was far from fanciful.
Dr Hafez proposed to accompany us to Upper Egypt where he
had arranged for us to be taken round the Aswan Dam by an
engineer, which did indeed prove extremely interesting, However
Kathleen, who had enjoyed the interest of the visits we had made,
pointed out, ‘This is our honeymoon – not an official visit!’
104 the importance of being awkward
I recollected that Harold Wilson had told me of the time when,
as President of the Board of Trade in Attlee’s government, he was
negotiating the wheat agreements with Anastas Mikoyan, Stalin’s
clever and able trade minister. Wilson arranged a conversation
with his private secretary in the bedroom of the Intourist Hotel in
Moscow, which they guessed was wired, along the lines of:
‘Mikoyan is a nice man, a good man, but I have laid the final
offer on the table and, if they do not accept it, we will just simply
have to go back to London without an agreement.’ Twenty-four
hours later, when they had got round to decoding the intercept,
the Russians accepted Wilson’s offer.
So Kathleen and I had a stilted conversation in our bedroom
about how much we liked Dr Hafez, how much we admired the
achievement of modern Egypt, how the pharaohs would have
been proud of Colonel Nasser and Dr Hafez but this was our
honeymoon and we longed for a bit of time on our own to wander
around the sites. Two days later, as we were due to depart for
Luxor by train, a breathless Dr Hafez appeared. He was very
sorry. He could not come with us. There was no hotel accommodation
available for him in Upper Egypt. He hoped we would
forgive him. We did and thought all the more highly of him and
of Egyptians for their consideration for a honeymooning couple.
When we arrived in upper Egypt, the hotels, surpisingly, were
virtually empty. The Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak, Medinet
Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramses III, and the rock temples
of Abu Simbel itself exceeded even our highest expectations.
On our last night in Egypt, back in Cairo, there was a knock on
our door after we had gone to sleep. ‘Mr Dalyell, will you get
dressed?’ said an agitated hotel under-manager. ‘A very important
man wants to see you.’
I was whisked out to Heliopolis, to the private residence of
Gamal Abdel Nasser. He entered his drawing room from a sidedoor
and opened by saying, ‘We know that your mother and
father spoke Arabic. Why don’t you?’ I promised to try. I failed. I
found Nasser deeply impressive and curiously willing to forgive
Britain for the Suez debacle but not Anthony Eden and Selwyn
Lloyd personally. He was well informed about the Labour Party
parliament: the 1960s 105
and anxious to know how Harold Wilson, if he became Prime
Minister, would get on with the Americans. He regretted the
death of Hugh Gaitskell, whose stance on Suez he admired.
As soon as Wilson was settled in Downing Street, I wrote to
him suggesting that Colonel Nasser should be invited to visit
Britain. Crossman thought this was sensible. However, the Prime
Minister replied, formally, that it was too early and, informally,
tugged my shoulder in the lobby and told me that he was not
unsympathetic but that he did not fancy the hornets’ nest that
such an invitation was simply bound to stir up.
Shortly after Harold Wilson had made his seminal speech on
‘the white heat of the technological revolution’, the Russian
Deputy Premier Konstantin Rudnev, who was the Politburo
member responsible for science, invited him to send a delegation
of six scientists and politicians to the Soviet Union. Only five got
on the plane with me – the only politician. It was led by Vivian
Bowden, the others being Dr David Schoenberg, director of the
Mond Low Temperature Laboratory in Cambridge; Professor
Colin Adamson, Professor of Electrical Engineering at UMIST;
and Professor Anthony Bradshaw, a metallurgist at Imperial
College, London.
Since Crossman himself was unable to go at the last moment,
I asked the powerful Culture Minister, Madame Furtseva, if my
bride of 10 weeks could fill the sixth place on the schedule (paying
her own way). This Communist battleaxe, veteran in the hardest
school of politics, had a kindly, knowing streak and assented.
So it was that Kathleen arrived two days later. Having got her
visa in record time in London, she got on the Moscow plane
and had the good fortune to sit next to Henry Brandon, the
distinguished commentator on Soviet affairs. From the icy
Sheremetyevo Airport, she was whisked off to the hotel where
she and Brandon had dinner. Not being too surprised when she
did not see me at the airport, she did begin to wonder what was
afoot when I had not turned up as expected that evening. The
next day I was able to explain that, having been down a mine
somewhere in the Dombas we were entertained – Russian fashion
– with a score of toasts. When I hesitated about gulping down the
106 the importance of being awkward
fifteenth toast – it was to our wives and loved ones – the mine
manager roared with laughter and asked if I did not love my wife.
I was to see her two days later in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. It
was a different world from Moscow. The climate and atmosphere
seemed almost Mediterranean and everyone was more relaxed
and charming, particularly to the ladies. Kathleen’s hand was
repeatedly kissed.
The wine was excellent, the champagne even better and the
Georgians were jovial good company. We were taken on a tour
of the city and told in detail about the exploits of a fourteenthcentury
hero, Prince Georgivili, whose statue dominated the
main square. Not a word about the Georgian who had ruled
Russia for a quarter of a century, Josef Stalin – we did not hear his
name mentioned throughout our visit. I asked to go to a football
match as I had heard that Dynamo Moscow were playing Tbilisi.
We were transfixed by the ‘Black Octopus’, the great Lev Yashin
in action. He deserved his worldwide reputation.
We were accompanied by Sergei Gvishiani. A Georgian
himself, he was chief executive of the Soviet Council for Research
and the son-in-law of the Russian technocrat prime minister,
Alexei Kosygin. He was cultivated, intelligent and charming and
a hugely knowledgeable football fan. While the delegation went
to meetings with representatives of the Georgian Soviet, Kathleen
was whisked off to the Pedagogical Institute because they
were anxious to record her Scots voice.
Taken into the Caucasus Mountains, amid the good cheer we
gained an inkling of the anti-Moscow feeling that was to erupt 40
years later in the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union.
On our return to Moscow, we had the most important and
memorable of our engagements – a visit to the Soviet Academy of
Sciences. There sat the formidable physicist and president of the
Academy, Academician Keldysh. He was flanked by Academician
Kirillin and the biologist, Academician Millionshikov, both
senior officers of the Academy. There was one other Russian in
the room. He was Pyotr Kapitsa, who greeted David Schoenberg
with a great hug. Kapitsa had been working in Cambridge in the
1930s and, by order of Stalin, was forbidden to return to England.
parliament: the 1960s 107
They were very candid, these scientists. They wanted cooperation
with Britain. They hoped that a Labour government
would not impede such co-operation on account of the actions
of Klaus Fuchs, Alan Nunn May and others who had transferred
to them vital nuclear information. Kirillin made the point that he
and his colleagues would have solved these problems without
knowledge of what the West was doing but it might have taken
them three or four years longer. Here was real friendship towards
Schoenberg and the other scientists. As a politician, I was conscious
that I was not considered one of them. Clearly, our Russian
hosts were of the belief that Fuchs and Nunn May had acted
selflessly in the interests of humanity, by deterring any temptation
on the part of Washington to deliver a pre-emptive nuclear strike
against the Soviet Union. In 2011, this thesis was fleshed out in a
remarkable book – to which I wrote the foreword – by Alan Nunn
May’s admiring stepson, the physicist Paul Broda.*
I do not share the conventional wisdom that Labour had a great
win in 1964. It was a cliffhanger. In truth, the much-mocked 14th
Earl of Home did astonishingly well, in at least restoring the
Conservative position after a series of scandals that had come to a
head with the Profumo Affair.
Had Hugh Gaitskell lived, my judgement at the time was that
Labour would have had a comfortable working majority in the
Commons. But premature death can determine political events.
Wilson, unlike Gaitskell, was widely perceived to be untrustworthy.
A sizeable section of the Parliamentary Labour Party had
not forgiven him for resigning over ‘teeth and spectacles’ with
Aneurin Bevan in 1951 (when Bevin, Harold Wilson and John
Freeman resigned from Attlee’s government because the incoming
chancellor, Hugh Gaitskell, had insisted on ‘injuring the
health service’ by levying charges on false teeth and glasses) –
to position himself in the affections of the Labour Party in the
country better. On the other hand, his speechifying on ‘the white
* Scientist Spies: A Memoir of My Three Parents and the Atom Bomb (Matador 2011).
108 the importance of being awkward
heat of the technological revolution’ chimed with the mood of
Britain at the time. Personally, I liked him and had voted for him
in the leadership election of February 1963.
Having become a really useful, if awkward, member of the
PAC (being ever careful in my early 30s to display exemplary
good manners towards the permanent secretaries and accounting
officers who came before us), I made the most ill-judged decision
of my public life – I volunteered to leave the PAC and become an
inaugural member of the Select Committee on Science and
Technology in 1966. The PAC was supported by a staff of
500, under the Comptroller and Auditor General in the National
Audit Office. Other Select Committees had a clerk and a parttime
special adviser if they were lucky. Stupidly, I yielded to Dick
Crossman’s advice that, as one interested in science and technology,
I had a duty to join what was then a ‘talking shop’.
We chose as our first task an investigation into nuclear power.
This was partly because our chairman, Arthur Palmer, an
electrical engineer who had represented Wimbledon in 1945,
then Cleveland and finally the safe seat of Bristol Central, was
disappointed in not being chosen for a government post and
wanted to make various points to the Cabinet.
To digress, I can still pinpoint the precise moment at which I
became a lifelong enthusiast for nuclear power. It was a morning
in September 1947, after I had just turned 15, that my father
arranged that I and a lad called Gordon Lorimer, who was
staying with us while his father completed his time in the Sudan
Civil Service during his holidays from Marlborough Public
School, should go down the Kinneil Coal Mine in Bo’ness on
the banks of the Forth estuary. The mine manager took us on one
of his routine visits. The miners, some of whom had been
members of the Home Guard commanded by my father, made
us welcome but one – a cheerful ‘toughie’ who made it plain that
he regarded us as softies (despite the fact that Gordon boxed in
the Marlborough team) – asked us, ‘How would you fellows like
to work here all your lives?’ To put it bluntly, I would have been
horrified at the prospect and, at that time, Kinneil was among the
most modern and well-equipped pits in the Scottish coalfields.
parliament: the 1960s 109
During the course of the investigation into nuclear power, I
managed to blot my proverbial copybook. It suddenly occurred
to me that, following a stream of witnesses from the Atomic
Energy Commission and the Central Electricity Generating
Board (CEGB), we ought to call on Harold Wilson, now Prime
Minister following the 1964 General Election, to explain his
thinking. It did not seem unreasonable. After all, as Leader of
the Opposition, Wilson had had a great deal to say about ‘the
white heat of the technological revolution’ in general and about
the role of nuclear energy in particular.
I made the suggestion that Wilson be asked to pay attention to
Arthur Palmer, who hummed and hawed but did not dismiss the
motion. I then told the technically well-informed journalist David
Fishlock, then at the Financial Times, that I had approached the
committee chairman. This was picked up by the tabloids and
presented as yet more trouble in the Labour Party. I was
summoned to the Chief Whip, Ted Short (now Lord Glenamara)
who sharply asked me, ‘Tam, what on earth do you think you are
doing?’ while waving the Daily Mirror at me. My own boss, Dick
Crossman, whose PPS I was, put it more earthily. ‘You are
behaving above your station in life. Why should the Prime
Minister waste his time by coming to your bloody committees?’
On this occasion I had not, as I thought, been awkward, but
was merely seeking after the truth of what was possible. I did
not mean to be awkward. Journalists revelled in the minor
discomfiture that I had caused in Downing Street. Some, who
remembered how Wilson had once dwelled on the exciting world
of nuclear power, thought my request far from unreasonable.
But my next suggestion to Palmer, which he accepted with
alacrity, was to have far greater consequences and was to
establish my credentials as a fully paid-up member of the ‘Awkward
The early background was as follows. Some two years previously,
Dr Leonard Rotherham of the CEGB had revealed to
the PAC the huge and costly operation of the Radar Research
Establishment (RRE) at Malvern. My antennae were alerted, as
were those of Brian Parkyn, MP for Bedford, who had built up his
110 the importance of being awkward
own chemical engineering company, that Malvern would be an
ideal venue for a technology-orientated university. This was
thought to be a ‘runner’. The Select Committee went to RRE
and I went with one or two Committee colleagues to the Service
Electronics Research Laboratory at Baldock.
The Select Committee’s work went smoothly until I suggested
to Palmer and colleagues that we would be failing in our duty if
we were not to visit the substantial Chemical and Biological
Warfare Defence Establishment at Porton Down. At first, resistance
was total. Defence Secretary Denis Healey and his deputy,
Fred Mulley, certainly did not want MPs prying into Porton
Down. It would be giving hostages to fortune and particularly
awkward in that the Labour Party did not like to think its
government was sanctioning the use of ‘nasties’.
My weakness was that I had been part of a high-profile
campaign against the use, in any circumstances, of chemical
and biological weapons (CBW). And, I was to learn that an MP
cannot combine membership of a Select Committee with public
campaigning on an issue connected with the work of that
Committee. I stirred Palmer, however, into making a song
and dance about the dignity of Select Committees of the House
of Commons. Ministers thought a row was not worth the
proverbial candle and capitulated.
Off we went to Porton Down. As usual, we took formal
evidence, after being taken round those parts of the establishment
that seemed pretty innocuous. Some weeks later, members of the
Select Committee received printed records of the proceedings, as
faithfully recorded by the Hansard reporter who had accompanied
us. Carelessly, I thought this was a public document, as were
all proceedings in Parliament. It wasn’t. It had not gone through
the ‘side-lining’ procedure that allows any witness or questioner
to correct and alter, subject to the judgement of the editor of
Hansard, any error in transcription. So, for a couple of weeks or
so, the hearings were not in the public domain.
A heavyweight and serious journalist, the late Laurence Marks
of the Observer, asked if he could come to see me about CBW. I
gave him a drink on the Terrace of the House of Commons,
parliament: the 1960s 111
where we talked for about an hour and then the Division Bell
went. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘for the purpose of greater accuracy, you’d
better keep these minutes.’ Off I went to the Lobby to vote and off
Marks went home. The following Sunday, Marks’ story, together
with reference to the Select Committee minutes, filled the front
page of the Observer. On Monday, all hell was let loose. Without
warning to me, Arthur Palmer portentously rose in the House of
Commons and demanded a ‘leak enquiry’.
In 1967, ‘leaks’ were an infinitely graver matter than nowadays,
when they are greeted with a shrug of the shoulders as an
everyday occurrence. Up got Boy Scout me and said, ‘There
was no need for a leak enquiry, it was I who had talked to
Laurence Marks.’ Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut.
Marks, a deeply honourable man, would not have revealed his
source. A heap of coals descended on my head. A week later, I
was hauled before a specially convened meeting of the Committee
on Privileges, then a really august body. It was chaired by that
charming, witty Welshman, Sir Elwyn Jones QC, who had been a
razor-sharp prosecutor at Nuremburg after the war. The first
question came egregiously from Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan
Sandys, who had been Harold Macmillan’s Secretary of State for
Defence. ‘Mr Dalyell, how much were you paid for leaking the
Select Committee document?’
‘Paid!’ I said. ‘It never occurred to me.’
Then I got a question which was intended to be friendly from
Arthur Woodburn, who had been Secretary of State for Scotland
and was a great friend of my father-in-law, Lord John Wheatley.
Alas, for an 80-year-old, it was long and convoluted and I did not
really understand what Woodburn was asking, so I simply said,
Ted Heath, the Leader of the Opposition, pounced, ‘Mr
Dalyell, do you really mean that?’
Of course, I didn’t. I was confused and created a bad impression
in the Committee. A person in my position should have
been allowed a lawyer to accompany him.
On reflection that evening, I knew that I had created a
disastrous impression and was not surprised that the Privileges
112 the importance of being awkward
Committee recommended that I should be brought to the Bar of
the House. I was summoned after a special three-hour debate,
from which I was excluded and had to sit, biting my nails, in the
Commons Library, in which Michael Foot, trying to be helpful,
was in fact unhelpful and Willie Hamilton, ostensibly trying to be
helpful, was malign. The Speaker put his black cap on and
formally reprimanded me. It was the last time the black cap was
used, as this ancient procedure was held up to ridicule in the
press as ‘mumbo-jumbo’. That dreadful Speaker, alas, the first
Labour occupant of the chair, Dr Horace King, hugely enjoyed
the drama. I was only too relieved not to be expelled from the
A number of colleagues were very nice to me in the ensuing
weeks. Some Tories, who knew, as I did, that there were no
secrets in the document and that we had not been asked to sign
the Official Secrets Act, commiserated. Many Labour MPs,
either sympathetic to my campaign on CBW or uneasy about
what their own constituency Labour parties might say, declined
to vote. Tony Benn hid himself in the toilet rather than have his
vote recorded. Home Secretary Jim Callaghan, in the most
imperious way, told Cabinet colleagues that he did not take part
in blood rituals. In fact, of the Cabinet, only Harold Wilson and
Peter Shore voted for the Privilege Committee verdict. The
upshot for me personally was that Wilson, who was generally
well disposed towards me, could not do as he had planned and
make me a junior minister at the next reshuffle.
In 1976, just before Alzheimer’s had set in and just after he
retired as Prime Minister, Wilson told me, ‘I owe you, Tam, an
apology and one day I will tell you why.’ He never did but I do
know why. The first apology, however, which I received, came
from Sir Harry Legge-Bourke, the senior Tory on the Committee.
Sheepishly, he told me that he had been put up by officials in
Ministry of Defence, personal friends of his, to complain to Arthur
Palmer and goad him into raising the issue on the floor of the
House, which had caused all mytroubles. I assumed for some years
that this was simply vengeance against me for having been so
awkward on the Borneo War, Anglo-French Variable Geometry
parliament: the 1960s 113
Aircraft, Aldabra and a host of other issues (of which more later).
I was wrong. Their vengeance was altogether more sinister.
By mucking around and having raised the profile of Porton
Down, I was in danger of stumbling across a truly terrible
Ministry of Defence secret. Years later, it emerged that a young
RAF aircraftsman, by the name of Ronald Maddison, had died
of poisoning and was the subject of a murder investigation by
the Wiltshire Police. The whole dreadful story emerged into
the daylight. In the 1950s, the Services had posted notices on
regimental and squadron notice boards to the effect that any
National Servicemen who volunteered to spend time at Porton
Down’s ‘Research into the Common Cold’ Laboratory would be
given 15 days’ pay with extra leave. Little did they know that the
‘research’ included the injection of sarin (subsequently classified
in UN Resolution 687 as a weapon of mass destruction) into men
wearing tank suits and heavy flying kit. For what purpose? For the
purpose of conducting tests of the effect of CBW on service
combatants. To try to snuff out the possibility of their really
scandalous action filtering into a shocked public domain, the
Ministry of Defence thought that, to use a colourful Scots
expression, they would ‘put my gas on a peep’ (defuse me) by
getting me on the technicality of the leak of printed minutes.
There was a silver lining. Donald Gould, a medical journalist
then editing the New Scientist, and his deputy, the talented biologist
Dr Bernard Dixon, asked me to write a full-page article giving my
side of the story. ‘Our readers,’ said Gould, ‘are more interested
in the issues raised by chemical and biological weapons than in
Parliamentary ‘‘mumbo-jumbo’’.’ His readers were interested.
Gould asked me to do another article of my choosing. I obliged
with a full-page on pneumoconiosis, the miners’ lung disease,
which caused so much distress in West Lothian. Thereafter, he
asked me to submit a weekly column. There was no contract – I
could have been sacked without compensation at seven days’
notice but I was paid, albeit modestly. The column was to last for
37 years.

From Parliament: The 1960s in The Importance of Being Awkward by Tam Dalyell

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