Death of John Smith: 25th Anniversary

Part of Acquired Brain Injury – in the House of Commons at 4:04 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 4:04 pm, 9th May 2019

It is a pleasure to follow Mr Sweeney. I add my thanks and congratulations to Ian Murray on having the foresight to recognise that this was an occasion that many of us in the House would want to mark.

Twenty-five years ago, I was a young TV reporter standing in a car park in Aberdeen with a camera crew waiting to interview Tony Blair. We knew that John Smith had had a heart attack that morning and we hoped that Tony Blair’s delayed arrival would bring a statement that all was fine and that John Smith would recuperate and be back soon. Sadly, by the time Tony Blair did arrive, we knew he had a very different outcome to relay to us. My thoughts that day, as on this day, were not merely about politics. I come from a family of three girls who lost their dad to a sudden heart attack at 44, and my thoughts were, and still are, with his girls. I am sure that the hon. Member for Edinburgh South would agree that, wherever Scottish politicians gather, at some point we get to talking about John Smith and what might have been—the country that might have been, the Labour party that might have been, how devolution might have developed differently, how the Labour Government might have acted differently—but we must always remember those lives most closely affected by losing him.

I do not claim to have known John Smith well, but when I was a young reporter he always gave me time and treated my often naive questions with respect, and he never ever patronised me—something we should all think about as Members. I particularly remember one evening when I was a reporter at Radio Clyde and had to phone him about the latest speculation about whether Neil, now Lord, Kinnock, was about to step down as Labour party leader. Once he had dismissed it as nonsense and said there was no way he would comment on such a ludicrous suggestion, he spent about 20 minutes, maybe half an hour, just chatting with me, putting me right about the situation and telling me what was actually going on in British politics and what I should be aware of. I came away from that conversation, which he did not have to have with me, better informed, and from then on in my career, I had much greater insight into and respect for British politics. I was not the only one, and I do not think it was just because I was a graduate of Glasgow University. I was not the only journalist in Scotland who had for John Smith the sort of respect and admiration the rest of us can often only aspire to. Other Members have spoken about the grief felt across Scotland among politicians. I cannot speak for the politicians of that time—I was not one of them, I was a journalist—but every single one of us felt that day that we had lost something that we perhaps had not valued enough. We saw him as a politician committed to an ideal but with a tolerance, understanding and commitment to people and communities that we would do well to emulate here.

I remember another occasion when I was sent to a pub in Airdrie—if memory serves—on the occasion of John Smith’s first response as shadow Chancellor. I was sent out to get public reaction to what the local MP was going to say, and I came away with a picture of a man regarded in his constituency as “one of us”, as somebody who understood his constituency and spoke for his constituency. He knew exactly what they wanted to hear and what they needed. I contrast that with the detached, two-dimensional picture that politicians often can project today. Maybe we need a little more of whatever it was that John Smith had, because he had something special that gave him a place in the hearts of journalists, politicians, the community and everybody in Scotland.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North East spoke about his parents. I remember my mother, a Tory, being distraught on the day John Smith died, because she respected him as a man who lived his politics. A politician to respect is one who enacts their politics in everything—no matter how small—that they do every day. That is what matters.

Looking back over the years, I remember a fantastic evening at the docklands in 1997: Labour’s daybreak party to celebrate what many of us, Labour or not, regarded as a turning point for the country. I remember how much John Smith’s presence was missed that night, as I suspect it has been missed in some way by Members in this place every day for the past 25 years.

I end by thanking the hon. Member for Edinburgh South again. As I got more involved in politics and decided to stand for this place, I kept in mind—even though I am not a member of the Labour party—that phrase of John Smith’s from the evening before he died. All of us who are in this place or who aspire to this place would do well to take it as our guiding principle: what we have here, and what we aspire to, is simply the opportunity to serve.