Dennis Canavan evidently has a most remarkable memory. He gives us an account of his life from his schooldays about 60 years ago to the present and makes all of it so vivid that it sounds as if it happened yesterday. It has all the vivacity and detail of an immediate report, memorable conversations and all the rest of it. But before the book gets going, Canavan starts with a sad account of the early deaths of three of his sons.

It ends with his decision in 2007, shortly after one of these deaths, to retire from full-time politics and devote more time to his family.

Canavan’s own family came from Ireland in 1884 and settled in Cowdenbeath which, at the time, had a flourishing coal industry. In 1942, two generations later, Dennis was born. He left his high school as dux and began to train for the priesthood, but soon decided that it was not the sort of life he wanted. He took a BSc degree in mathematics at Edinburgh University, and became principal teacher in that subject at St Modan’s High School in Stirling from 1970 to 1974. At the same he was active in the Labour party and became secretary of the West Stirlingshire constituency. Although he says at the end of this book that he was “probably a better teacher than a politician”, he decided to seek selection as the candidate for the constituency in the Westminster election in 1974. This brought him for the first time, but not the last, into conflict with Donald Dewar, who also wanted to stand for the same seat. Canavan won both the selection and the seat.

His relationship with the Labour leadership was always difficult. He opposed the Falklands War and nuclear weapons. He says of Blair’s New Labour that “it lost touch with many working-class people as a result of overdependence on big business”. Also, unlike much of the party, he wanted a Scottish Parliament with real power, fiscal autonomy and the rights to borrow and to the revenue from the oil in Scottish waters. He says about this: “In the Labour Party at that time, I was like a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but such ideas are now gaining currency and I am convinced that their day will come.” In some respects, at least, his aspirations were closer to those of the SNP than to most of his own party.

It is perhaps therefore not surprising that he speaks favourably of the SNP candidate in his own constituency, Jeanette Jones. He says of her that “she had a gift of communicating with people of different backgrounds. Many working-class people found it easier to identify with her than with a millionaire like Willie Baxter (the previous Labour member in the seat) who had become increasingly indolent, arrogant and aloof from the people he was supposed to represent.” He calls Winnie Ewing a “bonny fechter” and says that she “had excellent credentials to chair the first meeting of Scotland’s new parliament”. On the other hand, he says, “in politics your worst enemies are sometimes within your own party”.

A good example of this last point is his revealing account of the manipulations of the Labour machine to control the selection of their candidates for the first election in 1999 to the revived Scottish Parliament. Canavan says that they wanted a Parliament “stuffed with obedient puppets who had unquestioning loyalty to the Blairite agenda”. The consequence of this has only been too obvious in the performance of the Labour members in that Parliament both in government and in opposition. In particular this party machine was determined to exclude Canavan. Dewar told a fund-raising dinner that Canavan “was simply not good enough”. He therefore decided to stand as an independent and he won the seat with the largest majority in the whole of Scotland.

A few weeks later, Canavan was walking up the High Street on his way to the Parliament when he saw Dewar a few yards in front and caught up with him in the hope of engaging him in conversation. He tells us what happened: “‘How’s it going, Donald?’ I began but I got no further. As soon as he recognised me, Donald gave me the cold shoulder and made a mad dash to the other side of the road with such blind reaction that he was almost run over by a double-decker bus. If the bus had hit him, I would probably have got the blame for assassinating ‘the Father of the Nation’, because it was widely known that I did not approve of such a title being bestowed on a man who exhibited such a petty streak.”

This book is a valuable contribution to recent history and a fascinating account of a lively personality at the heart of it.