Death of John Smith: 25th Anniversary

Part of Acquired Brain Injury – in the House of Commons at 2:52 pm on 9th May 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Labour, Edinburgh South 2:52 pm, 9th May 2019

I shall come to that later in my speech. Journalists get all the best gigs, I am sure—such as the Tory party conference.

I was saying that John Smith’s family had suffered the most heartbreaking loss of all—the loss of a husband, a father and a part of their lives that could never be replaced. I feel that acutely, because I lost my own father at a young age. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in wishing my own mum, Lena, a happy 70th birthday for yesterday. The Labour Party would have a new leader to replace John and the country would have that Labour Prime Minister whom it so desired, but it is not possible to replace a father and husband.

I never met John personally, but I feel, as others will surely feel today, that he was always part of my political life. His family still live in my constituency, and constituents often stop me in the street and get on to the topic of John. He was one of theirs, and they are not going to let people forget that any time soon. They all recall his funeral service at Cluny parish church in Morningside. The building sits on a small embankment close to where John lived. The film footage shows the red brick punctuated by the black of mourners moving slowly and sombrely past into the church. The deep national shock was there for all to see.

My right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett cannot be here today owing to a long-standing engagement in her constituency. She was John’s deputy, the politician who took over the reins of the Labour party and the person who had the most difficult job in the House, that of leading the tributes to John when he died. She did it brilliantly and with her usual grace, clarity and kindness. She was devastated that she could not be here today, so she asked if I would read out something on her behalf, and I am very proud to do so:

“25 years ago, the profound shock of John Smith’s untimely death was felt across the country and this House, which only convened for tributes to be paid, led by the then Prime Minister, John Major, before adjourning.

It was also the Scottish Conservative party’s annual conference”

—as we have heard—and

Ian Lang, the Secretary of State, announced the news and adjourned the conference immediately.

In the Labour party and wider Labour movement the sorrow was profound. I recall a senior trade unionist telling me that he was listening to the tributes in his car, and found himself crying so much that he had to pull over and stop the car.

Party leaders, presidents and prime ministers from across Europe demanded to be allowed to come to the funeral and pay their respects. None were officially invited but they all came anyway at what ended up as almost a state funeral. Yet, in the end, it was not a sombre occasion—appropriately, because John was not a sombre man. It was his lifelong friend Donald Dewar who said in his address, ‘John could start a party in an empty room—and frequently did.’

Yet his outstanding characteristic was his determination to, as he put it, ‘speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves.’”

I do not really want to do a biography of John, but his character was undoubtedly shaped by his upbringing and early life. John was of radical Presbyterian stock, born on the west coast of Scotland on 13 September 1938. “John Smith”, he once said “is the commonest name in Scotland. A robust character is needed to overcome that.” His grandfather was a herring fisherman, and his father was the schoolmaster at the local village school.

At 14, John attended the grammar school at Dunoon. He was academically very successful and began to organise on behalf of his beloved Labour party. From school, he went to Glasgow University, where he cut his teeth, sharpened his elbows and honed the skills that would take him to the Bar and then to the Dispatch Box. He remained at university for seven years, reading for degrees first in history and then in law. He became a first-class debater, as many of the Glasgow university alumni at that time did, helping his university side win the Observer mace competition, but his greatest passion lay in politics.

At just 21, he was adopted Labour candidate for East Fife, which he fought unsuccessfully, and, despite another couple of failed attempts, became the MP for North Lanarkshire in 1970. Legend has it that he won enough money on predicting the results of the 1966 general election in Scotland to be able to quit being a solicitor and train for the Bar; I am not sure whether that is true.

As a new MP in this House in 1970, it was said that he ruined his chances of early promotion by defying his Whip and voting for entry into the EEC in 1971; I certainly know what defying my party Whip on Europe feels like so can concur with that. He remained a staunch pro-European and internationalist his entire career. Breaking the Whip must have been difficult for John, because he was a party man and believed in discipline, which would prove to be useful in his later political career, but he also believed in the common market and working together, and history repeats itself all too often in this place.

John had a glittering parliamentary governmental career as a Minister in employment, trade and energy until the long 18 years of Labour in opposition. He was shadow Chancellor from 1987 until he became Leader of the Opposition, following the 1992 general election and the resignation of Lord Kinnock. But despite his glittering parliamentary career, John always put his constituents first. Mike Elrick, who worked for John, said that John always emphasised that he had constituents who needed him to fight their corner and he had no intention of letting them down.

The people who knew him best were the wonderful people who worked for him, such as David Ward who is here today. I asked David what it was like to work for him and he had story after story of what a pleasure and how much fun it was. As almost every tribute has mentioned and will mention, he was a witty man, with a warmth and kindness. But David tells a story, published in Mark Stuart’s book “John Smith: A Life”, that emphasises John’s devastating humour, which was used to deadly effect in parliamentary debates. John was a brilliant debater capable of superb one-line put-downs to Conservative MPs brave enough to intervene on him. When John was on full song, he relished the chance to cut his opponents to size. Such was his fearsome reputation that it became obvious that Tory Whips were discouraging their MPs from interrupting him in debates. In response, Labour Back Benchers used to taunt the Tories to stand up.

John was spontaneously quick-witted but he also worked very hard at jokes prepared in advance. A great example is the “Neighbours” skewering of Nigel Lawson in this Chamber in June 1989, when Lawson was Chancellor, over the role of Margaret Thatcher’s economic adviser Sir Alan Walters. Lawson and Walters were at loggerheads over Tory policy on Europe—that sounds familiar—and that was causing huge friction between No. 10 and No. 11, which is also hugely familiar. In opening an Opposition debate, John sang a brief section from the theme tune from the television programme “Neighbours”, playing on these tensions; I am not going to sing it this afternoon. This hilarious mocking of the Chancellor culminated in John calling on him to go “before he was pushed”, and 24 hours later the Chancellor resigned.

David Ward said that they were working on the speech the day before the debate and, while John and David were drafting the text, another member of the team, Ann Barrett, was watching the BBC to make sure John got the lyrics to the theme tune right. After that, they seemingly rehearsed the theme song with everyone singing along late into the evening. David said he was worried that anyone wandering past the leader’s office would have been forgiven for thinking everyone had gone stark raving mad.

But I wonder what John Smith would have made of today’s greatest issue, Brexit. Today is Europe Day, and he was a great internationalist. For one, he would not have gambled on calling a referendum and he would have challenged the constant downplaying of the importance of the UK as an integral member of the EU. What would John have thought of the Brexit shambles engulfing and paralysing our politics? It is worth examining what he would have done, and David Ward looks at this in an article published in today’s New European. We know that John voted to go into the EU. He fundamentally believed that giving up some national sovereignty to gain some sovereignty back would allow a great degree of control over the international companies and the global issues of the future. Working together was the only way to solve the global problems.

And here is a greater lesson for Europe now: the way John Smith handled the tricky problem of Europe. Instead of a leader trying to force his opinion on the party—history may be repeating itself in the Labour party today—he asked the party to force its view on the leadership. There are important lessons to learn from his handling of the European issue during his all-too-brief tenure as Labour leader. The party could have been equally as divided as the Conservatives. Dissidents led by former Cabinet Minister Peter Shore—including a notably serial rebellious Back Bencher and challenger to his leadership, my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, the current Leader of the Opposition—were irreconcilably opposed to Britain’s membership of the European Union, but John minimised internal dispute by taking the unprecedented step of allowing the parliamentary Labour Party, rather than the shadow Cabinet, to determine its policy on Maastricht ahead of crucial votes.