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It is no accident of interior decoration that thistles and roses are recurrent motifs in the plasterwork and wood carvings that grace the House of the Binns, one of Scotland’s most celebrated country residences and the home of former parliamentarian Tam Dalyell.
Commissioned by his Dalyell ancestors, the prickly blooms symbolise the union of Scotland and England that was forged in 1603 when the Scottish King James VI succeeded to the English throne. The House of the Binns, which dates from 1612, is itself a fruit of that union, built in large part with cash accumulated in London by Thomas Dalyell, the son-in-law of a key Scots negotiator of the succession.
This family history is the context to Dalyell’s stubborn opposition to the creation of a separate Scottish parliament and to his horror at the very idea of the full independence being offered in a referendum to be held in September next year.
“Catastrophic, absolutely catastrophic,” he tells me when I ask him how bad it would be for Scotland to leave the UK.
As a Labour member of the British parliament in the 1970s, Dalyell seized every opportunity to counter efforts by party colleagues to establish a Scottish assembly, a step that he warned would put Scotland “on a motorway to independence”.
Time and again in Commons debates, Dalyell demanded to know how it could be right that he as MP for West Lothian would have a vote on health or education matters in the rest of the UK, whereas English and Welsh MPs would not have a vote on the same issues in Scotland. Enoch Powell, the late Conservative MP and a fellow opponent of devolution, dubbed the issue the West Lothian Question, and the name stuck.
Grey clouds lour over the low West Lothian hills when I arrive at the House of the Binns just west of Edinburgh on a chill autumnal morning – and peacocks strut around on the lawn which opens on to a fine view of the Firth of Forth. A welcome fire is spluttering in the hearth of the Laigh Hall, an entry chamber on the north side of the building. The room is one of the humbler of The Binns’ public rooms, but still impressive with its oil paintings and wall-mounted swords, bows and animal skulls.
Dalyell, 81, hospitably offers me a cup of tea and a biscuit and waves me to an armchair next to the original 1622 fireplace. But he makes no secret of his impatience with requests to pose for photographs. “We’ve got an hour. Let’s get on with the interview,” he says, his accent polished by his years at Eton.
Retirement from the House of Commons in 2005 does not appear to have mellowed the man who titled his autobiography The Importance of Being Awkward. It has certainly not softened his hostility to any threat to British unity.
The 1970s push for devolution foundered because of a requirement that it be backed in a referendum by more than 40 per cent of all potential votes, rather than by a simple majority. But demands for home rule only grew and in another referendum in 1997, Scotland voted to establish a parliament with tax-varying powers for the first time since 1707.
The West Lothian Question remains unanswered. Scots MPs continue to have a vote on purely English matters, although those representing the Scottish National Party, which currently governs in Scotland, abstain from legislation that only affects England and Wales.
UK ministers been have looking at ways to allow only English MPs to have the final say on English issues, but Dalyell says the problem that bears his former constituency’s name is essentially insoluble. “There is no answer to the question of how you can have a subordinate parliament in part – only part – of a state which you wish to keep united,” he says.
That means the further devolution being promised by pro-union parties ahead of next year’s referendum would merely add to the UK’s internal strains. For as long as the Scottish parliament continues, Dalyell says, it will inevitably seek to draw greater powers to itself.
“They will go on nagging and nagging and nagging for more powers and at some point people in England will snap and, believe you me, there is a great deal of fed-up-ness with this already, and impatience, and a lot of people who’ll say: ‘Well, if that’s what the Scots want, let them bloody well have it. But don’t expect that there will be any special favours.’”
Yet Dalyell’s call for the Scottish parliament to be scrapped instead looks unlikely to gain traction. Opinion polls suggest that while only a minority of Scots currently support independence, the Scottish parliament is considerably more popular than is Westminster, and most voters would like it to have greater authority.
Nor would many pro-union politicians publicly agree with Dalyell’s gloomy view of an independent Scotland’s prospects. Even David Cameron, UK prime minister, says Scotland could stand on its own, though he insists it will fare better within the UK.
When I ask Dalyell why he thinks independence would be catastrophic for Scotland, he says he does not “believe in” small countries, and when I note that there are many successful small countries, he is blunt: “Question mark. I don’t think we’re a very good small country . . . We’re too cosy with one another.”
While such comments will no doubt outrage some of his countrymen, Dalyell has never been afraid to speak his mind or set his own course. In more than four decades as an MP – he ended his career as Father of the House, a title given to the longest-serving member – he often took up unfashionable causes.
Dalyell says he was always careful to stick to issues on which he knew more than his peers and never to make a stand entirely alone. He was aided in his early years by confidence that he could return to his early career in teaching and his home at The Binns. There was also a sense of family expectations. Dalyell inherited the title of 11th Dalyell baronet through his mother. Although he does not use the title – and made a career in socialist politics – he has written of being “driven” to be useful by the ancestors who stared down at him from family portraits at The Binns.
Not that Dalyell is a traditional Scottish aristocratic laird, or landowner. In 1944, when he was 12, his mother gave The Binns and its contents and grounds to the newly formed National Trust for Scotland. It was a pioneering move at a time when many fine country houses were being lost forever. Dalyell signed the transfer deeds while at preparatory school, sitting at the headmaster’s desk over which he had been punished with six strokes of the cane the day before.
The family retained right of residence. But Dalyell and his wife Kathleen share the house with visitors on guided tours. Public access has fuelled the fame of The Binns, a much-adapted U-shaped building, its stonework “harled” with lime render in the Scottish manner and blending elements from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Among the grandest rooms are the High Hall, now a drawing room, and the King’s Room, both of which were decorated in the 17th century for an expected visit by Charles I. They are festooned with rich plasterwork that includes imposing reliefs above their fireplaces of the royal coat of arms: a shield carried by the unicorn of Scotland and the lion of England.
Dalyell hopes his son Gordon, a personal injury lawyer, might be a future resident. “I would, of course, like it, but I can’t dictate,” he says.
For all his fervent desire that Britain should be governed from Westminster, Dalyell is harsh about political trends that he says would make it much harder for independent-minded politicians like himself to win a place in the UK parliament. He blames centralised party control over candidate selection and a standard career path that sees young politicians cycle through parliamentary and party jobs without needing to work much in the outside world. The narrow careers of prime minister Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband leave him “absolutely appalled”.
“What experience do they have other than politics? This is an elderly gentleman beating his stick at the new generation, but I do think they behave like children . . . Nowadays it seems yah-boo and point-scoring. I’m absolutely ashamed of some of the stuff I hear on radio,” he says, before offering a final word of advice to pass on to anyone interested in a political career: “For God’s sake, get a different job first.”
Mure Dickie is the FT’s Scotland correspondent
The Binns was given to the National Trust for Scotland complete with its furnishings, and the house remains replete with exotic items of family note. The collection ranges from fine family portraits to military memorabilia of the late General Tam Dalyell, whose 17th century martial career included service in the army of the Russian tsar. But the general’s 21st century namesake denies hold a particular affection for any single heirloom. “I don’t have favourites. Never have favourites,” he says.