Death of John Smith: 25th Anniversary

Part of Acquired Brain Injury – in the House of Commons at 4:50 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 4:50 pm, 9th May 2019

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Members for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), my hon. Friend Stephen Kerr and Margaret Beckett on securing the debate. I am also grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time to it.

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall keep my remarks relatively short, not from a lack of respect but because, unlike so many other Members who have contributed to the debate, I did not know John Smith personally. None the less, it is an honour to wind up the debate on behalf of the Government. I am not quite as young as Mr Sweeney, who I believe was five at the time of John’s death, or as Neil Gray, who was eight. I was a 15-year-old Tory boy at my local comprehensive, rather lonely position in the mid-1990s, as Members might imagine—[Interruption.] Valerie Vaz says from a sedentary position that it toughened me, and it certainly did.

It is a sign of the contribution made by John Smith that, even among teenage Tory boys like me, he was regarded as a towering political figure and there was a genuine and profound sense of shock when we heard of his death. It is a sign of his legacy that 25 years later here we are in this Chamber discussing it. So much of what he did, whether on devolution or the national minimum wage, and the way in which he conducted his politics still seem fresh and relevant to politics today. That is a true tribute to the legacy of John Smith.

My politics and my interest in politics were certainly stimulated by John Smith and I certainly remember those Maastricht debates and the incredible skill that he had—he simultaneously supported the Government on Maastricht and managed to sow division within the Conservative party and inflict defeats on it. Like many others, I also remember his funeral. It was a unique expression of the affection and respect he commanded, not just from the Labour party but from the Prime Minister and other major figures from every party and every area of national life who crowded into that simple parish church in Edinburgh to say goodbye to a man whose basic decency and good sense we could ill afford to lose. As our then Conservative Prime Minister, Sir John Major, said, he

“was one of the outstanding parliamentarians of modern politics. He was skilled in the procedures of this House, skilled in upholding its traditions, a fair-minded but, I can say as well as any Member in the House, tough fighter for what he believed in and, above all, he was outstanding in parliamentary debate.”

He went on to talk about

“the waste of a remarkable political talent”—[Official Report, 12 May 1994;
Vol. 243, c. 429.]

and that certainly was raised by many hon. Members, not least the hon. Member for Edinburgh South.

I think that I can say without any risk of contradiction from any of my hon. Friends that if a Conservative Member of Parliament was ever asked to name the greatest Labour Prime Minister we never had, we would all choose John Smith. As many Members have reminded us, many of the causes that John Smith championed are still relevant today. My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling talked about the role John Smith played in devolution. In many ways, he was the godfather of devolution.

Some Members may have heard the Radio 4 programme last weekend, recalling the path to devolution, in which John Smith’s daughter recalled a dinner very shortly after her father’s death to which both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were invited. Tony Blair apparently earnestly asked John Smith’s daughter how committed her father really was to Scottish devolution, and she apparently left him in absolutely no doubt about the strength of his commitment to that cause.

Other Members, particularly those who worked with John Smith—especially Mr McFadden, who made an excellent contribution—mentioned his basic human decency. It was also brought out very well by Christine Jardine that it is easy to overlook his role as a family man and that his death deprived his wife of her husband and three girls of their father.

Jim Fitzpatrick said something that we could all do with remembering on both sides of the House: for a political plane to take off, it needs both its left and right wings fully intact. That speaks to a wider role that John Smith played in promoting a civility in British politics that, as so many hon. Members have rightly observed, is sometimes lacking in these turbulent times. Despite only leading his party for approximately two years, a genuinely huge expectation had built up behind his leadership in 1994, but this never inhibited him from being an open, congenial and good-humoured man, as his colleagues have attested —no matter what their political allegiance.

Perhaps I may be forgiven for concluding my remarks by requoting the oft-uttered words of John Smith the night before he died that many hon. Members have also observed today:

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

And what a fitting legacy of that great man.