Tam Dalyell is a remarkable man – a politician with a long career ending as Father of the House. He is famous for his campaigns including those regarding the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War and the Lockerbie bombing and the events of the trial at Camp Zeist.
He is also one of the obituary writers for the Independent newspaper, which is why I mention him today.
For many years the practice regarding newspaper obituaries was to put the best gloss possible on the deceased subject (unless they were a convicted murderer or something similar).
But the Independent newspaper, when it was established in the 1980’s, brought in the custom now followed by most serious papers – the by-lined obituary.
One effect of this was that the obituaries often had a far more personal feel to them, rather than being a re-hash of the deceased’s Who’s Who entry. It also meant that the writer was more able to spell out the bad as well as the good.
Tam Dalyell has written many Independent obituaries, primarily of Members of Parliament, Trades Union leaders and those prominent in the Labour Party. His many years on the political front lines mean that he has personal knowledge of politicians stretching back 50 years.
Today’s Independent has the obituary of Lord Gilbert, the former John Gilbert MP.
Tam Dalyell’s obituary is a masterpiece of the art of saying exactly what one means about the deceased. The maxim “don’t speak ill of the dead” has been ignored, at least on this occasion, by Mr Dalyell.
However, from the following extracts, can you guess how Mr Dalyell feels about his former Labour Party colleague?
“He demanded – yes, demanded – to be called “Dr” Gilbert; we wondered what exactly his doctorate was in. It transpired that after a year or two as a banker in New York he had somehow got a PhD in international economics at New York University.
“… he accused the Stock Exchange of malpractice; the City was livid. Gilbert could not prove his accusations.
“… in order to heal Party wounds the PM promoted him to Minister for Transport in the Department of the Environment. The owner of a somewhat ostentatious Aston martin and of a Mustang, he did try to get compulsory seatbelts through but failed.
“In 1976 Jim Callaghan became PM and wanted to sack him. But Gilbert couldn’t be contacted as he was in America, and somehow he persuaded the PM to demote him to Minister of State in the Ministry of Defence responsible for procurement.
“Many of the unsatisfactory current situations on defence procurement can be traced back to Gilbert, particularly in relation to Polaris, the British Army of the Rhine and the inflated costs of a number of weapons systems.
“In 1980 I had my first (of a number) of blazing rows with Gilbert. … he made cheap and disparaging statements about Denis Howell, former sports minister, about me as chairman of the PLP sports group, and unforgivably about Dick Palmer, Secretary of the British Olympic Committee.
“Gilbert cared nothing about athletics or swimming – motor racing was his sport; he was merely unthinkingly pro-White House.
“In fact he has been grossly overrated as an inquisitor.
“He was insufferably arrogant with witnesses to no great effect and seldom ascertained the truth.
“Frankly, he was bombastic and rude. He liked controversy for the sake of controversy.
“I have the highest regard for most of my parliamentary colleagues of all parties. I fear John Gilbert was not among them – a view shared with most of his contemporaries in the PLP and in the wider Labour movement.”
Rest in peace Lord Gilbert.
Posted by Paul McConville