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13 May 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 4:16pm

“A great future prime minister lost to this country”: on the legacy of John Smith

On the 12 May 1994, Labour leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack. Paul Sweeney, the Labour MP for Glasgow North East, paid tribute in the Commons on Friday.

By Paul Sweeney

Although John Smith was born in 1938, some 51 years before I was born, his influence still affected me in some small ways. Reflecting on his death in May 1994, when I was just five years old and at primary school – primary 1 – one of my earliest political memories was the grief that swept through my house. My parents were crying, and I remember that very vividly. I have only some faint memories of politics in the 1990s, and one of the earliest ones was John Smith’s death.

John Smith’s death definitely struck a chord from a very early age because, after so much despair at the loss of the 1992 election, my parents had invested in the hope that Labour might finally come to power and achieve the changes, as it was seen at the time, to liberate our communities, which had been ravaged so terribly by Conservative Party politics. There was a great deal of hope, and of lost hope in that moment, and that was definitely impressed on me from a young age. Tam Dalyell wrote about how he remembered it as similar to the death of Gaitskell in 1963 aged just 56. That was a similar episode of great potential and a great future prime minister lost to this country, and the potential of what that history could have entailed and what it could have meant had it not been altered in such a terrible way.

The key lessons from John Smith’s political tradition and his political behaviour are that he was suspicious of factional demagoguery and of opportunist political spivs who crafted their values in managerialist speak. However, he was also very intolerant of his party being in impotent opposition. He yearned for Labour to return to government, and that was evident in his speeches and the way he addressed this House.

In truth, he was a complex mixture of different things that influenced him as a person. There was the ruthless Glasgow University debater, which is a great tradition; the Edinburgh lawyer, which is another great tradition; and the emotional west highlander. He came from a very beautiful part of the world.

In Tam Dalyell’s obituary, there is a reference to Calum MacDonald who was Member of Parliament for the Western Isles at the time of John Smith’s death. He observed:

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“That John Smith was a West Coast Highlander by birth and background came across strongly in three ways. First, that socialism for John was not about dry theories on narrow sectional interests, but about values, principles, and moral beliefs. Second was his great democratic and egalitarian quality – that he could relax with absolute ease in any circle of people. And third, the sense he gave of being a man with a healthy hinterland – a man with a passion for politics but also with strong roots in his family, in Scottish society, and the land that he came from.”

John Smith’s presence was often felt. I went to Glasgow University, and one of the first things I did was joint its union. Anyone who joins Glasgow University union cannot miss John Smith, because he is there facing every student who walks into that building as a wonderful bronze bust that stares from the top of the stairs of the debating chamber, and simply says on it “Friend of the Union”. That is what encapsulated the spirit of John Smith.

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Working-class people often go to Glasgow University, which is quite unusual in Britain because most of its students are home students and tend to come from the city. It has a fine working-class tradition, and because of that debating chamber where – like so many politicians from across Scotland – John Smith cut his teeth, he came to this House without fearing it and with a healthy understanding of how it works. Working-class people who went into politics cut their teeth at the Glasgow University union, which to this day is still the greatest debating union in the world. John Smith did a great deal to achieve that. He won the Observer mace for the union in 1962 and was convener of debates. He formed that great tradition along with Donald Dewar.

Until recent years, the university union held a biannual dinner and debate in honour of John Smith, and I remember that Tom Clarke, the predecessor of my hon. friend Hugh Gaffney, came to speak to us. He spoke movingly about John being such a lovely man and someone who did not suffer fools gladly. He was also a great friend to people across political traditions and divides. He was not sectarian or petty. He was certainly tribal and firm in his beliefs, but he maintained friendships despite that. We should remember that important point in our current politics.

After his election in 1970, John did not necessarily pursue those things that would lead to progression in the political hierarchy, and in 1971, he voted, along with 68 Labour colleagues, against the Whip on joining the common market. He told the Commons that day that “economic forces must somehow be brought under popular control and be fashioned towards social and political ends that the people determine.”

We should remember that fine sentiment today as we consider our future relationship with the rest of the world.

In 1974, when Labour was on the cusp of coming into government and defeating the Heath Government, John made another watershed decision that might come across as counterintuitive. He said that he did not want to take up the post of Solicitor General for Scotland, because he did not want to be typecast in Scottish affairs and as a lawyer-politician.

John was quickly forgiven and joined the Department of Energy. Cutting across political traditions, he served under Tony Benn who was then secretary of state for energy. Benn tasked him with setting up the British National Oil Corporation in Glasgow. Today, it is an office building used by Santander, which encapsulates what Labour was trying to achieve in the 1970s and how it was turned over by Thatcherism. He set up a great institution, which was a vision for mobilising the great resources of North Sea oil for the common good and the greater betterment of the nation. Sadly, his vision and the BNOC-Britoil building were dismantled and that tradition and opportunity was lost, but that was another example of John’s vision.

John was promoted to minister of state under Michael Foot to pilot the Scotland devolution Bill through the Commons. Like Benn, Foot was full of praise for Smith’s loyalty and expertise. His excellent personal relations with Benn and Foot made it much more acceptable that a tough right-winger should be become a cabinet minister from 1978. From 1979, until his appointment as the leader of the Labour Party in 1992, he won every shadow Cabinet election.

On his advocacy of devolution, despite much criticism and opposition within the Labour party, John said:

“It is the Labour Party which has campaigned to get a Scottish Assembly established. No other political party has pioneered the way in which this Labour Party has.”

Indeed, he had disdain for the intransigence on the constitution of both the Conservative Party and the nationalist traditions on this question. He recognised that the United Kingdom has great benefit to Scotland, but that it is over-centralised. He sought to create a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh that would give better government to Scotland, while strengthening the United Kingdom. Then, as now, that is the preferred view of most of the people of Scotland, as regularly tested in opinion polls both before and since the 1997 and 2014 referendums.

However, he also recognised that not responding imaginatively and vigorously to the need to reform the constitutional structure of Britain would create such tensions from a notion of a democratic deficit and regional imbalance that would only serve to render the fracturing of the United Kingdom altogether as the more likely outcome.

John Smith said in 1992 that there were two forces sawing away at the legs that support the Union. One was the nationalists, who wished to destroy the United Kingdom; and the other was the stupid Conservative Party, whose members blundered on oblivious to the consequences that their arrogant actions were having for the future integrity of the United Kingdom.

That was borne out in the Conservative Party’s opposition to the creation of the Scottish Parliament. And of course the SNP boycotted the Scottish constitutional convention and opposed devolution at the 1997 general election. It is nice to see that John’s understanding of the problem and its solution was proven right by history. There is now much consensus on how he saw the future develop.

John was very proud of the Labour party: proud of its name and proud of its history. He was confident of the contribution it could make to the future progress of our country. He was also proud of Scotland, saying:

“as a Scot myself, representing a Scottish constituency, born and brought up in Scotland, living and wishing to continue living in Scotland, a member of a Scots profession, with children at Scottish schools, and having roots too deep in Scotland to wish to ever sever them, I think I am as entitled as any separatist to speak for my fellow countrymen.”

In the particularly vicious discourse that prevails in Scotland in the wake of the 2014 referendum, those sentiments ought to be heard far and wide across Scotland.

On the Labour party, John said it was:

“a united and a determined party, impatient for the responsibility of power. Let us communicate our resolve, our ambitions, our values, to the people. For they are ready, they are so ready to listen to the message of hope and of confidence which Labour proudly proclaims.”

Sadly, death robbed him of the opportunity to serve, but the Labour government of 1997 delivered his unfinished business of home rule. His friend from his days on the floor of the university union to the Floor of this House, Donald Dewar, said at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, almost 20 years ago to the day:

“A Scottish Parliament. Not an end: a means to greater ends.”

As John Smith said,

“What’s the point of being in politics, if you can’t speak up for the people who can’t speak up for themselves?”

That was the greater end to which John Smith sought to achieve a Scottish Parliament. In his maiden speech, he spoke up for his constituents from mining communities about how poverty was affecting them.

That must be our task today: to demonstrate the same courage in speaking for the interests of people who cannot speak up for themselves across our constituencies and countries and to share John Smith’s optimism for what public service can achieve so that we can realise our capacity as a nation and a society to set our own objectives and to set about achieving them in a spirit or resolute determination. May he rest in peace.

Paul Sweeney MP is Labour MP for Glasgow North East and shadow minister for Scotland.