Death of John Smith: 25th Anniversary

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

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

The right hon. Gentleman’s intervention speaks for itself. If the House will indulge me, I have not yet had the opportunity to say publicly that he was a fantastic Minister in the Foreign Office. I sit on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and he was always courteous and straight with us. He was a super Minister, and I hope that he ends up back on the Front Bench as soon as possible.

John Smith’s self-confident approach won a clear majority among Labour MPs for ratification of the Maastricht treaty. Crucially, that left the Conservatives looking fatally divided and Labour clear in its support of a radical and progressive agenda for a reformed European Union that put jobs and people first. I just wish that we could have that approach today. I am in no doubt that he would be deeply saddened by Brexit, angered by the lies told during the referendum and dismayed by the Prime Minister’s approach. I think that today he would endorse exactly the position taken by his former deputy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South. She unequivocally and persuasively believes that any version of a Brexit deal passed by this place should be put to a confirmatory public vote. We all listened intently to her superbly argued speech in this House during the indicative vote process, and many would conclude that John Smith would have agreed with every word she spoke. That is where our politics is lost today. Smith’s politics were based on persuasion and taking people with him, by force of argument, to do what was in the national interest. I believe that our politics has lost that principle at the moment, as Alistair Burt said.

Then there is John’s beloved Scotland. What would he make of it all today, as a passionate believer in devolution? It is 20 years this week since devolution was introduced. The Scottish Parliament is his legacy. John firmly believed that devolution was the settled will of the Scottish people, but that independence would be disastrous. He would see it as even more of a folly than leaving the European Union. John made his political name by being fully immersed in his time at the Cabinet Office to do devolution. Many thought that it was a poisoned chalice, but he came out of it incredibly well. In a touching twist of fate, the first sitting of the new Scottish Parliament took place on the fifth anniversary of his death in 1999. I wonder what John would think of what is happening in Scotland today, where his idea of devolution to make Scotland the best place it can be is being used as a tool to by nationalists to rip the UK apart. Scotland lost giants like Smith, Dewar and Cook. We could be doing well with them in Scottish politics today.

Key to the devolution reform was, John believed, the conscious devolution of power to the nations and regions of the UK, and the first step was the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. He was a convert to devolution in the 1970s, not because he saw it as a means of killing “nationalism stone dead”, but because he saw it as a means of addressing a democratic deficit, bringing politicians closer to the people and making them more accountable for their actions. A Scottish Parliament, he believed, was essential to the democratic governance of “our nation”, by which he meant the United Kingdom, not just Scotland. In John’s view, it was “unfinished business”. Devolution was in the interests of the UK, not just Scotland, and a key part of the democratic renewal of the British constitution and its civil institutions. We maybe need a new Smith approach for the 21st century devolution settlement across the whole United Kingdom.

John Smith leaves a lasting legacy despite dying at just 55. Yes, he is the best Prime Minister we never had and an inspiration to us all, but his legacy also includes the Smith Institute, fellowship programmes for leaders of the future, and the John Smith Centre based at his own University of Glasgow. The centre has now established itself as a leading institute for academic rigour, advocacy and opportunity. It is part think-tank and part defender and advocate for the good in public service, and it exists to lead by his values and his example. There is also the annual John Smith memorial walk. It is a legacy he would be proud of.

Many in the Labour party would refer to themselves as Blairites or Brownites. In fact, many refer to each other in such terms—some positive and some negative. I have never been comfortable identifying with either of those blunt terms, but I am comfortable with being a self-declared Smithite, and on this anniversary we should all be a bit more like John and a bit more Smithite.

Andrew Marr concluded his obituary to John by saying:

“He is the lost leader of a lost country. Had he lived, he would have entered our lives, affected our wealth, altered our morale, changed how we thought about our country, influenced the education of our children. His grin would have become a familiar icon, his diction the raw material of satire. At however many removes, and however obscurely, his personality would have glinted through the state and touched us all. For good or ill? The question is now meaningless. That Britain won’t happen.”

In his final conference speech in 1993, John concluded with this:

“For I tell you this: there is no other force, no other power, no other party, that can turn this country round. It is up to us, all of us, together. This is our time of opportunity: the time to summon up all our commitment;
the time to gather round us all our strength. And, united in our common purpose, it is the time to lead our country forward to the great tasks that lie ahead.”

As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of John Smith’s death, let us remember the words that have become his epitaph. The night before he died, he spoke at a European gala dinner in London. When he spoke these now immortal words, he did it from the heart and with his usual passion. They are something that I have always used to guide me in politics, and perhaps we should remind ourselves of them every day as we navigate our own paths in this place. These were the last words he said in public and some of the last words that many of his closest friends ever heard him say. As all our thoughts this weekend will be with Elizabeth, Sarah, Jane, Catherine, the wider family and his friends, we simply say:

“The opportunity to serve our country—that is all we ask.”