Death of John Smith: 25th Anniversary

Part of Acquired Brain Injury – in the House of Commons at 4:28 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 4:28 pm, 9th May 2019

It is a pleasure to follow Mike Gapes and to contribute to this debate, not just on behalf of the Scottish National party but on behalf of my constituents, many of whom were also John Smith’s constituents. I congratulate Ian Murray on securing the debate. I supported his application for it, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this time in the main Chamber. The hon. Member for Edinburgh South spoke eloquently, although I did not agree with everything he said, as I am sure he will understand. However, there is no doubt that he did John Smith’s memory justice. My thoughts, like his, will be with John’s family this weekend. Others who made moving speeches in the debate—those who knew John and those who did not—also did his memory justice. They all made their tributes well.

I did not know John Smith. Many people remark that I must have had a very tough paper round, but I hope it is self-evident that I did not know him—I was eight years old and growing up in Orkney when he sadly died. Although I did not know him, in preparation for today’s debate I have spoken to people, locally in my constituency and nationally, who did. The great sense that I get not just from this debate, but from the people I have spoken to is of someone who was clear about what he believed in and had the talents to realise his ambitions, but who was humble enough to be inclusive and egalitarian.

Peter Sullivan became a Labour councillor in the Cairnhill area of Airdrie—now the Airdrie Central ward—when John was the local MP. I spoke to Peter last night and, despite the fact that they had disagreements, like so many others Peter spoke of someone whom we would all wish to see leading in politics today. He said that John was a humble man without being a humble person in that, despite his undoubted abilities, he never sought to demean or make anyone feel small.

What Peter really appreciated was that John Smith made time for other people and took the time to canvass for him and to knock on doors, which worked because local people trusted John, meaning that they voted for Peter. Even if he was too polite and spent too long speaking to people who clearly were not going to support Labour, he was dignified and always listened even when people disagreed with him. He gave them the respect they deserved before politely offering his counter-argument.

What struck me from reading the biographies and the book dedicated to John, which was edited by Chris Bryant, was his inclusiveness and willingness—even eagerness—to surround himself when Leader of the Opposition with people with whom he disagreed, and the aeroplane analogy of Jim Fitzpatrick is quite fitting. That is what John’s best man Jimmy Gordon—now Lord Gordon—remembers as well. John had huge respect for Back Benchers and wanted to listen to them, regardless of whether they agreed with him. Jimmy thinks that that was because of John’s deep-rooted belief that everyone entered politics as a public service. We may disagree on particular issues, but John tolerated political difference because he respected everyone who made the sacrifices necessary to enter politics as a public service.

That tolerance has struck me because we have a real problem in politics at the moment with people at all levels who do not have that same strength of character, the same tolerance, the same confidence of their conviction, and the same ability to use the art of debate to persuade that John Smith had. We are living in a time of political intolerance, which is a problem for all our parties, our political movements and all of us. That intolerance has led to a culture in which abusing politicians and other public figures is becoming normalised. When John Major paid tribute to John Smith in this House in the hours after his death, he spoke of someone he debated with vigorously in public, but with whom he could share a respectful drink in private. Now there is a dangerous tribalism under which people are incapable of being wrong, we do not allow ourselves the space to accept nuance, and pragmatism is looked on with suspicion.

If we are to tackle abusive behaviour online and in public, it is incumbent on politicians to show some leadership. Yes, call out problems where we see them, as some of my colleagues did at the weekend, but also show a little more respect to one another and more tolerance for people with opposing views. Debate with John’s passion, but have a civilised relationship afterwards, as Mr Sheerman rightly said. Otherwise, I fear that we will move to a politics in which creative thinking and collaboration are impossible.

There is no doubt that John Smith was a thinker. We have already heard of the policies that he proposed that are still his legacy to this day, but Peter Sullivan says that he was coming up with new policies that had not appeared in Labour’s manifesto for the upcoming elections. Those policies included allowing council tenants to live rent free after a period spent in council housing, such as 25 years. I can certainly see the attraction of that policy, and I am sure that others on the progressive side of politics would, too.

John is remembered locally as someone who was accessible and worked hard for his constituents, but he will be remembered by most as a formidable parliamentarian. Jim Sillars was a member of the parliamentary Labour party at the same time as John Smith and remembers how he used his forensic skill as a defence lawyer in parliamentary debates. However, like Peter Sullivan, Jim saw someone with the necessary human touch that is required in political leaders, but is sometimes lacking. The valuable asset, as Jim describes it, was John’s sense of humour coupled with a sense of humility. It was that humility that drew me to quote, of all my many illustrious predecessors, John Smith’s maiden speech in my own first contribution in this place. He was humble enough to admit his nerves before that maiden speech, and in his last speech he said he just wanted to serve and that he genuinely believed in public service.

As Jim says, John did not see himself as exalted but as fortunate to be given the opportunity to work on people’s behalf. Jim is right, and that should be what drives all of us. Lord Gordon agrees and feels that that feeling of public service is being lost, not just by a small number of those involved in politics but by those who observe and comment on politics, who often forget that public service is what drives the majority of us.

In that regard, it is timely that the former leader of the Labour party in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, should be taking up her post at the John Smith centre for public service. I am sure we all wish her well, and I know John’s family are still deeply involved with the centre.

People locally and nationally often speculate as to what might have happened had it not been for John Smith’s untimely death, and we heard some speculation in this debate. Would Labour have won in 1997? Undoubtedly. Would the Labour Government still have been radical and popular? Almost certainly. Would we have gone to war in Iraq? Unlikely.

But I do not think John Smith’s legacy should just be his policy ideas or his unfulfilled destiny, because although I agree with much of what he stood on politically, I cannot agree with all his political decisions. What should be remembered is what he stood for. That should be his legacy and a lesson to unite people in politics today. We can agree or disagree with John Smith’s politics, but we should admire and aspire to his tolerance, his humility, his inclusiveness, his egalitarianism and his eagerness to serve the people.