Politics is as much about losers as winners, which is why the defeated repay attention as much as the victors. The vanquished, moreover, are usually more candid. In their accounts the bruises tend to show; so does the anger. The fury of Mr Tam Dalyell, Labour Member of Parliament for Linlithgow, at his inability to damage the Prime Minister over her role in the Belgrano affair and other matters, borders upon the uncontainable. He is the politician who has turned tenacity into an art form. Where others may weary, falter and even stumble, he persists. Successive prime ministers, including those on his own side of the party divide, have flinched at the sight of his form rising from Westminster’s back benches. While no premier would choose to see himself as Macbeth, Dalyell relishes the role of Banquo’s ghost.
He pestered Harold Wilson with a troops-out-of-Borneo demand which was ultimately conceded. His concern for the unique ecological system of an Indian Ocean atoll led him to save it from the RAF, hungry for a staging post, thus ensuring that such species as the pink-footed booby, the flightless rail and the giant tortoise might live happily ever after. The Anglo-French Variable Geometry aircraft project, which had the robust backing of Denis Healey as Secretary of State for Defence, was grounded after a sustained campaign by the tireless Scot. Again, he helped to defeat James Callaghan’s legislation designed to provide a devolved government for Scotland. But no occupant of 10 Downing Street has been the target of so relentless an onslaught at his hands as Mrs Margaret Thatcher. Now, with all the zeal of a Dickensian prosecuting attorney, he summarises the case he has deployed for so long, and sadly to so little effect.
It is his contention that she has misled the House of Commons on a string of issues, most notably in the dubious business of the sinking by the British Navy of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, with the loss of 368 lives, in 1982. This, he persuasively insists, was contrived by the Prime Minister in order to avoid acceptance of a set of Peruvian peace proposals which would have deprived her of ‘the military victory which was what the Falklands was all about from an early stage’. He also detects her hand in the leaking of a letter from the Solicitor-General in the affair of the Westland helicopter company, discerning, as he does so, a campaign to discredit her Secretary for Defence, Michael Heseltine, who subsequently resigned. He claims, moreover, that she again misled the Commons over the American use of British bases to bomb Libya, and he sees her influence behind the police raids on BBC premises in Glasgow in the wake of the uproar over the TV series Secret Society. Her purpose here, he argues, was to teach the broadcasting authorities a lesson and create a climate in which, during an election year, they would be unwilling to challenge the government of which she was the head. Finally, he attacks her failure to set up an inquiry into the behaviour of security officers who, according to Peter Wright’s Spycatcher, sought to undermine the Wilson premiership.
These charges, as Mr Dalyell frames them, have either been denied or brushed aside by Mrs Thatcher or her spokesmen. The evidence on offer is sometimes thin. A not-proven verdict would seem the best he might hope for from an electorate which clearly did not care about the niceties of the sinking, or the Westland obfuscations, and which earlier this year returned the Premier for a third term. Even so, it is difficult not to applaud this stern, unyielding critic. It is not the enchantments of his prose style, nor the arguments long rehearsed on a score of Labour platforms, that one cheers. It is the sheer doggedness and his record for actually being right. His Parliamentary colleagues may yawn at his bulldog tactics. But his qualities are even applauded by his father-in-law, which is not always the case in human affairs. Lord Wheatley, in his admirably modest account of a meritorious Scot’s progress from a Shettleston boyhood to the highest reaches of his country’s legal and political life, offers a magisterial stamp of approval: Tam, he concedes, may be a controversial figure, but his conscientiousness and determination cannot be gainsaid.
What Dalyell sees in today’s House of Commons is the dead hand of a Compliant Tendency. Tory MPs have changed since he first became a Member twenty-five years ago. They are more fearful, he believes, of stepping out of line, and infinitely more hungry for the rewards of ministerial office and the feel of limousine leather beneath them as the official car glides smoothly into New Palace Yard. The effect upon the Government’s accountability to Parliament and the electorate, he argues, has been dire, with Westminster, like Fleet Street, having no interest whatever in ‘last year’s story’ lest that interest might rock the boat.
Were the future to reveal similar weaknesses in a Labour Administration Dalyell would doubtless nail them in the same forthright fashion. Critics on his own side may sometimes see him as a ‘bloody pest’, but in reality his self-chosen role, always underrated in party politics, is that of the candid friend. It has cost him advancement. He had no sooner achieved long-coveted rank as a Front Bench spokesman (on science) than he was dismissed by Michael Foot, then Labour leader, because of his opposition to the despatch of the Falklands task force.
Much of the anger in John Silkin’s posthumously published book is directed against Anthony Wedgwood Benn. Labour’s internal wars of the late Seventies are refought here, culminating in the 1981 election for the Party’s deputy leadership, in which Silkin stood as standard-bearer for the non-Bennite Left. Although he was eliminated in the first ballot, leaving Denis Healey to slug it out successfully against the Demon King, Silkin saw himself in a heroic light. The wafer-thin majority for Healey, he claims, marked the start of Benn’s political decline. Certainly it paved the way for Neil Kinnock’s accession, but, six years and two general elections on, it all has the air of some dusty, half-forgotten sectarian conflict fought out in a declining branch of English Nonconformity. There was clearly a great deal for which Silkin could not forgive Tony Benn, whom he saw as a very real threat to Labour’s hopes. While he enjoyed his antagonist’s ‘sense of fun’, he was less susceptible to what he saw as other Bennite qualities: ‘articulate, plausible, affluent, public-school and Oxford-educated, he could say simple things in a simple way – he had to, because he had probably only read the book the day before. He spoke with the voice of certainty and had mastered the art of saying next to nothing with great sincerity on television.’ There are occasional passages in the book which have the kind of bite Silkin seldom achieved on the platform.
He was a member of his Party’s establishment. His father had served under Attlee. He himself had been Harold Wilson’s Chief Whip, and in his time Minister for Public Building and Works, for Planning and Local Government, and for Agriculture. He belonged to the traditional Left which looks back beyond Bevan to Blatchford and relies on finding its way to that elusive New Jerusalem through the parliamentary process. He regarded the Hard Left with hostility, resisting its pressures both in the Labour movement at large and in his own South London constituency. His was a perspective which recalled the days in which feats of organisation were revered by Labour as a means of securing votes. Here was a political arcadia in which dozens of local parties could boast more than two thousand members, at least a tenth of whom could be relied upon to help rally the faithful when elections came. He blamed the declining faith in organisation on the emergence of psephologists ‘who thought themselves very important indeed and proved it by becoming television stars’. And as he saw it, their influence was such that professional politicians would ask: ‘Why bother with organisation when we already know the result from a sample poll?’ Any return to Labour’s golden past seems as unlikely as Dr David Owen’s reappearance on its benches as a prodigal son, but Silkin’s message still has some validity for a party reeling from a third successive defeat. The truth is, he writes, credit companies tend to treat their members with more respect than Labour does. By all accounts, the Party mended its ways to fight this year’s election, which John Silkin did not live to see, but one campaign is like the proverbial swallow and the real test lies in the souring years of opposition that stretch ahead. Silkin did not believe that 1987 would see Neil Kinnock installed at No 10. His reflections, always balanced and thoughtful, are offered now as a corrective to the errors which he saw as the begetters of that defeat. His survivors might usefully heed his advice.
The subject of Julian Critchley’s unauthorised biography ranks as a loser at least for the moment. Michael Heseltine may have stormed out of the Thatcher Cabinet over the Westland affair, he may have no power base in the Commons, but in his biographer’s estimate at least he has a kind of spring-heel quality that might astonish us yet. To this interim assessment of a derailed political career Critchley brings the sympathies of an old chum, the ear of a farceur and the eye of a comic novelist. He is himself part of the story. They were at school and Oxford together and are still fellow Tory MPs. At one stage Critchley was in Heseltine’s employ as editor of the now defunct Sixties magazine Town. Years later, the author reports, ‘I asked him if he had ever made a mistake. “Yes, sacking you, ” was his surprising reply.’ Indeed, there are moments when Heseltine’s progress, as recorded here, has the air of an old British film comedy with Ian Carmichael in the leading role. There are lines which call for character actors to give them their flavour. Who, for instance, would play Lord Whitelaw – the man, it seems, who once described Heseltine as ‘the sort of man who combs his hair in public’?
‘As I left the House at the end of term in July 1986,’ Critchley recalls,
I ran into Ted Heath. He asked me how I intended to spend the recess. I told him that I was going to write Michael Heseltine’s biography. ‘That won’t take long,’ was his reply.
It was an unexpectedly witty response, but an unfair one. The story that unfolds here may not possess the gravitas of Morley’s Life of Gladstone but it tells us something about the modern Tory Party as it appears to one of its more liberal insiders. It is that of an intensely ambitious man who, plotting the course of his career on the back of an envelope while at Oxford, saw himself in Downing Street by the Nineties. ‘I had never met anyone,’ writes Critchley in his role of the admiring chum, ‘as determined as he was to make his mark.’ Whether his hero – entrepreneur, publisher, Tory Conference star and erstwhile cabinet minister – will realise his ultimate ambition is a question which induces a note of caution. He puts the odds at three to one against and identifies smiling Kenneth Baker as the man from whom Heseltine has most to fear. About other possible contenders he is refreshingly frank. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, possessor of a ‘powerful intellect and a suitably bullying manner’, is just not well enough regarded. The good-natured Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe may be a man without enemies, but whether he would have enough friends to win a leadership election is doubted. Peter Walker might cherish hopes, but ‘the Right would die in the ditch to prevent him taking the leadership.’ Should his man actually pull it off, Critchley foresees a Heseltine Administration out to alter capitalism‘s unacceptable face through intervention and regulation, under a leader who would pay heed to the needs of One Nation in the old Tory tradition. As for himself, Critchley looks for no reward save the last governorship of the Falklands. He might even get it.