I beg to move,
That this House has considered the 25th anniversary of the death of John Smith, former leader of the Labour Party.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting Chamber time for this special debate on a motion in my name and in the names of right hon. and hon. Friends across the House. The 25th anniversary of John Smith’s untimely passing is a fitting occasion to commemorate and remember a man who lit up this place, lit up our politics and lit up the lives of so many. I am sure that many hon. Members across the House will wish to share their stories and memories today.
This Sunday will mark the 25th anniversary of John Smith’s death. When I suggested this debate to his wife, Baroness Elizabeth Smith, I was not expecting a response from so many colleagues wanting to contribute or merely tell me their own stories about John. Many MPs, from all parties, have come up to me and said, “I can’t be at the debate, but let me tell you about the time—” or “I know where I was the heard the news that John had died.” After 25 years, that is a measure of the man himself: he was admired and respected across the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Many of us have memories of John Smith. I remember that when I was a London taxi driver, there was a memorial service to him in Methodist Central Hall, just across Parliament Square. I could not finish the day without parking up and going inside to join in. He was a remarkable speaker—a magnificent orator, whom I managed to hear on several occasions. In my opinion, he will go down as one of the parliamentarians who can be described as a great Prime Minister that this country never had.
I hope that when my hon. Friend went into the memorial service, he stopped his meter—I know that John, as a traditional Scot, might not have done so.
Some of the stories about John can be repeated in public, but—with his wonderful wit and Scottish humour—there are some that are perhaps best not written into Hansard. I do not think that anybody would contradict the assertion that he was the best Prime Minister that this country never had. As a young Andrew Marr wrote:
“The greatest political tribute to John Smith is the simplest one: had he lived, he would have become Prime Minister.”
It is no exaggeration to suggest that his passing changed the course of British history. He was referred to as “Labour’s lost leader”, the man who made the Labour party electable again.
As well as being a formidable and committed politician of extreme intellect, transparency, decency and straightforwardness, with a sense of fairness and a willingness to fight for those who were not able to speak up for themselves, John Smith was a committed family man, with his wife Elizabeth, whom he met at Glasgow University, and his three daughters, Sarah, Jane and Catherine. The country may have lost a Prime Minister in waiting, but they suffered the heaviest and most heartbreaking loss of all—the loss of a husband, a father and a part of their lives that could never be replaced.
When I heard of the death of John Smith, I was at the Scottish Tory conference—as a journalist, I should point out, not as a member of the Tory party. I remember that the whole conference came to a grinding halt. Everyone there was stunned and greatly saddened. I thought that that reflected very well on John Smith, and, in fairness, extremely well on the Tory party.
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 the Member for Derby South (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 the Member for Islington North (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.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and for the way in which he is presenting his arguments in favour of John Smith. I should like to take him back to the way in which John Smith conducted himself in the Chamber. Although he was robust in his parliamentary style, he was always respectful. This reminds me of a conversation I had with Jimmy Gordon—now Lord Gordon—who said that it was because of the respect John Smith had for others that he had not come across one person with a bad word to say about him. Would the hon. Gentleman like to reflect on that?
That was a super intervention. I think that that was the measure of the man himself. I am sure that, if we were all a bit more like John Smith, this place would be more pleasurable and our politics would be more as they should be.
My hon. Friend might not know that I used to work for John Smith, and I will be speaking about him in the debate later. John did not suffer fools gladly. If you crossed him in a bad way, if you let him down or if you did not come up to scratch, you got the hard word—and if he gave you the hard word, you deserved it.
I am sure that my hon. Friend has no direct experience of that and that he has just been told about that approach taken by the former leader of the Labour party.
I think that I am the only one here on the Conservative Benches today who was here on the day that John died. I remember being in the Department of Social Security, where I was a Minister, and I remember how shocked everyone was. We learned quite quickly that he had passed away, before it could be publicly announced. I remember the shock among Labour friends as they began to appreciate what had happened, and I would like the hon. Gentleman to know that Conservative Members who were here felt exactly the same as our colleagues in the Labour party. In that spirit, I would say to him that, while he has painted a picture of a robust and quite partisan politician, I cannot personally remember being on the wrong side of one of John Smith’s tirades. That is probably because I was one of those who took the advice of the Whips and did not intervene on him. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that he was able to combine passion with courtesy, and that if there is anything that we are missing at the moment in the difficult debates we are having, it is the ability to combine our passion—whether for our party beliefs or for Europe—with the courtesy that this House and this country need? John Smith’s example should take us forward into the future.
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 the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (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.”
In commending the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech, may I say for the sake of wider consumption and for those who pay attention to our proceedings here that the lack of hon. Members in the Chamber at this particular moment is absolutely no reflection on the way in which this debate is perceived by hon. Members in general?
Listening to the hon. Gentleman, I had a tear in my eye. I remember very well exactly where I was when I heard the news about John Smith. I can confirm what the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said about the Scottish Conservative party conference, which was immediately suspended on that day. Perhaps I am somewhat biased as a West of Scotland, Church of Scotland, Scots lawyer, albeit a Conservative, in my absolute respect and liking for John Smith. I had the opportunity to speak to him reasonably often, and I held him in the highest regard.
What the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) said about the lessons we can learn, 25 years on, from the way in which John Smith conducted his political life and political relationships is a very strong message indeed. I simply repeat that the fact there is not a very large number of Members here to reiterate that message does not mean it is not held in very great honour. The memory of John Smith in this place will go on and on.
Thank you for your very moving words, Madam Deputy Speaker. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for his magnificent tribute to John Smith.
I rise as a Scot, indeed a Scottish Conservative, to honour one of our finest countrymen. When John Smith died, this country lost a leader of integrity and a leader of faith. His socialism was strongly rooted in his Christian faith, and he proposed a politics that, in his words, could
“replace cynicism with faith, despondency with expectation, despair with hope”.
This uplifting vision of political service—indeed, service to others—is rooted, is it not, in the principle of love, the greatest of all the godly virtues? It speaks to our day, and indeed to all the days we have faced or will face in this House, or wherever we may be.
The service of the best of our parliamentarians, and John Smith is certainly in that number, reminds us that we serve not to gratify our pride or vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion, but, in the words of the Speaker’s prayer that we have the privilege of hearing every sitting day:
“laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind”.
John Smith, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South said at the close of his tribute, sought and asked for the opportunity to serve our country, which is all he wanted. In truth, it should be all we want. He sought to serve, as many hon. and right hon. Members do, and the country is the poorer for his tragic and untimely loss.
John Major described John Smith from the Dispatch Box as
“an opponent, not an enemy”—[Official Report, 12 May 1994; Vol. 243, c. 430.]
—would that our politics reflected that spirit—and he paid tribute to his pragmatism and fair mindedness. John Smith knew that some things were more important than politics. The national interest and the interests of the people of our country always came first for him.
As has already been said, the legacy of John Smith is celebrated, and should be celebrated, in the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the devolution settlement. It is 20 years since the establishment of Holyrood, which is now a vital part of the daily political life of Scotland. It is accepted by all, including people like me who campaigned and voted against its establishment. I was on the wrong side then, but there is no zeal like that of a convert—and a convert I am.
As a Scot and a Unionist, I feel that we must work hard to ensure that the Scottish Parliament fulfils its promise of a Scotland at ease with itself, united together and well governed, with a Parliament that makes a real difference to the quality of the lives of its people. But I have to say that I believe there is unfinished business in relation to devolution. In my mind, that is captured in my experience as a newly elected Member of Parliament for a Scottish constituency when I have come up against the culture and mindset of Whitehall.
The better governance of Scotland, I believe, will also require further change at the heart of the UK governmental system. There are yet missing constitutional pieces that undermine and have the potential to damage fatally the unity of the United Kingdom. I regret to say that, too often in Government Departments, there is a prevailing culture of “devolve and forget”. For the Union to flourish, its influence must continue to be felt as a power for good in the lives of people in all parts of the United Kingdom. John Smith knew that only too well, as a Scot who understood that the United Kingdom is at its best when it pulls together in the same direction and when people work together for everyone’s benefit.
John Smith’s resting place is on Iona, where the light of Christianity first came to Scotland. It is a fitting place. On his gravestone are engraved these words:
“An Honest Man’s The Noblest Work of God”.
That is truly fitting. John Smith’s politics were honourable and honest.
There is much we can learn from John Smith’s life and legacy—from a man seen as an opponent and not an enemy; a man who could see beyond politics towards a higher goal of a better country and a better world; a man who strove to give a voice in this place and elsewhere to those who are voiceless. I am only too well aware that in this House we stand on the shoulders of giants. Those who came before us are always with us, and always will be.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate today. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on securing it and on his wonderful opening speech. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr).
I did not work for John Smith for a huge length of time—for about a year before he died. One of the truisms of life is that we do not know what we have until it has gone. Many people felt that about John Smith after he died. I remember well the tributes paid in this Chamber by MPs from both sides on that day and how moving and genuine they were.
It could be said that the podium at our conference or an outside event was not John’s natural habitat, but this Chamber was—particularly at the Dispatch Box, when holding forth in debate. He enjoyed it, the challenge and the back-and-forth. He loved to take interventions, like notes in a song to guide the rhythm of his speech. He would challenge the opposition. Having a master of parliamentary debate at the Dispatch Box cheers the troops. It gave heart to the MPs sitting behind John to see him perform in parliamentary debate.
He came up with some memorable lines. I remember him giving John Major a very hard time when things were going wrong—the grand national had failed to start, hotels were falling into the sea, and he called him:
“The man with the non-Midas touch”.—[Official Report, 9 June 1993; Vol. 226, c. 292.]
For all the barbs, there was always a glint in John’s eye as he faced the person opposite.
John’s funeral was at Cluny parish church, and I had some part in organising it. It was a combination: it was a private family occasion but turned into something like a state funeral. We all remember the words of his lifelong ally, Donald Dewar, who said:
“The people know that they have lost a friend”.
My right hon. Friend may recall that one thing that happened at that funeral and that was subsequently replicated for Princess Diana’s funeral was that the service was broadcast to nine cathedrals throughout the country. People turned up in their thousands to attend at all those different cathedrals and sing the same hymns at the same time.
That is an eloquent reminder of how deeply his death was felt in the country.
A debate such as this is also a moment to consider what John Smith stood for and what he would make of today. When we think about what he stood for, we think of words such as decency and community, which for him was not just a word but something with real meaning—the basic building block of the good society—and we think about the term social justice. One of his main initiatives as Labour leader was to establish the Commission on Social Justice, chaired by Sir Gordon Borrie and staffed by a bright young man called David Miliband. That body was charged with coming up with a platform of ideas that would challenge poverty and inequality, promote social justice and opportunity and, crucially, do so with policies that were properly costed and not dependent on some mythical magic money tree. Responsibility was written through its remit, as well as ambition.
The reason why responsibility was so important was that John understood the importance of trust in politics—of winning the public’s trust—and the truth is that in the early 1990s Labour had a trust problem with the public. We had lost four elections. The trust issues related to things such as taxation, our perceived weakness on defence, and a doubt that we could be responsible in power. He wanted to take away any fears about backing Labour, so those issues of responsibility and trust were hugely important.
The Commission on Social Justice did not issue its final report until after John had died, but many of its recommendations were enacted by the Labour Government that followed. The highly respected Resolution Foundation has recently done some interesting research on the impact of those policies on, for example, child poverty. The research showed that during those years child poverty was reduced by significantly more than was thought at the time, and that—without being too partisan today—it has gone up by more than we first thought in the years since 2010. Those achievements on child poverty had a lot to do with the legacy of John Smith. It was about the difference between winning and losing elections and the difference between governing and protesting, and that difference was felt in the families of some of the poorest households in the country.
John Smith was a champion of the national minimum wage at a time when the cause was not fashionable and there was no consensus, even within the Labour movement. It is great that there is consensus now across the parties in favour of the national minimum wage, but it is one thing to accept consensus and another entirely to create it and John Smith played a great role in creating consensus on the national minimum wage.
John was also a party reformer. When I worked for him, he was engaged in a titanic battle with some of the major trade unions in the Labour party on the principle of one member, one vote. He had to face down accusations that if this reform went through, it would mean the end of the union link and a break in the relationship between the Labour party and the unions. That was not true, but it was what opponents of the reforms he was advocating maintained at the time. It took great bravery to carry that battle through. It was not a battle that he always relished, but it was one he was determined to win, and in the end, he did.
John was a passionate supporter of devolution. He believed that there should be a Scottish Parliament and he never believed that that should mean breaking up the United Kingdom. His belief in devolution sat alongside a belief that we have far more in common throughout the United Kingdom than anything that sets us apart.
John was an internationalist, a passionate pro-European who broke the party Whip to bring the United Kingdom into the European Community within months of being elected as a young and no doubt ambitious MP. The reason he was so passionately in favour of that was fired by social justice: he understood that in a world of international capital, there was a social justice benefit to be gained by controlling markets internationally, and that no country could do that on its own. He would have been very clear in his rejection today of the right-wing nationalism that has driven the Brexit agenda, but he would have been just as clear in his rejection of the ossified fantasy of socialism in one country that drives support for Brexit in some corners of the left, too.
John was a believer in strong defence, a supporter of the nuclear deterrent and a supporter of NATO. He understood the post-war Labour Government’s achievement in creating a system of collective defence. He would never have found himself parroting the lines of the country’s enemies or attacking NATO as an aggressive or expansionist organisation. That was his politics. That was his democratic socialism. The tradition that he represented was the internationalist social democratic tradition in the Labour party. Of course, those were different times. It was just after the end of the cold war, and South Africa was emerging from apartheid. There was a middle east peace process that people could really believe in, about which he was passionate.
I believe that the causes that called John Smith are still relevant today: the battle for social justice, the battle against poverty and inequality, the battle for community to mean something, the battle for the United Kingdom’s European identity, and the battle for strong defence and keeping people secure—for collective security. These things are all relevant today and, in line with his tradition, there are still people prepared to stand up and fight for them.
It is of course a pleasure to speak in this debate on Europe Day about my dear old friend John, and I say that with humility. David Ward, his special adviser, is here, and one of the Deputy Speakers, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster Central (Dame Rosie Winterton), knew John well. Many of us worked with him, and you could not work with him without saying that you loved him. I knew him from about 1979, so for about 15 years. We were always in opposition; it is terrible that John never got that chance to be Prime Minister. When I got in, what I realised about this man who had asked me to join his team was what a rumbustious character he was.
I did not know anything about Scottish politics, and when I joined his team I suddenly realised that there were all sorts of internal wars in Scotland that I did not know about. I soon worked out who John loved, loathed and disagreed with, and it seemed that it all went back to time immemorial—or at least to their student debating days. I mean, it was no secret. Look at the quality of the speakers in those days, when I was first in the House: Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and John. I will not go into too much detail, but I will say that there was a very close friendship between Donald Dewar and John Smith, although the same could not be said about his relationship with Robin Cook, which was very deep in some student disagreement they had in the past.
John was a rumbustious character. He was larger than life and an amazingly vibrant speaker. I remember the day we were in here and the Conservative Government were near collapse. It was Black Wednesday—we had come out of the exchange rate mechanism—and he filleted the Chancellor of Exchequer. He did him over in a way that only a brilliant speaker can do.
I used to be a university teacher when I worked for a living. Some university teachers who come here were probably very good lecturers, but cannot speak in the House of Commons; I may be among them. But I know a lot of lawyers who come here and cannot keep the attention of the House. Their skills are about the courtroom, but they cannot do it in here. John Smith could do it in here—absolutely forensically and funnily. In a sense, it reminded me of Harold Wilson’s reputation. John actually turned down Wilson’s first offer of a job, which was unheard of. Wilson offered him a job in the Scottish Office, but he refused because he did not want to be branded just as a Scottish politician. Of course, Wilson was wonderful at interjections; he loved them. Whether in a public meeting or in the House, everybody knew that in his prime he was brilliant at repartee. John was even better—absolutely brilliant. As the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said, people were told not to intervene on him because it was like offering human sacrifice in a debate. It was a rollercoaster working for John because he lived well and loved to party, but his work rate was enormous.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the fact that John Smith was a fantastic parliamentarian. There is often an issue with some politicians being very good parliamentarians, but not very good constituency Members of Parliament—having difficulty interacting with their constituents. However, former local councillor Peter Sullivan, who I spoke to about John last night, said that he was incredible on the doorstep, and that he would often take too long speaking to some of his constituents, even when it was clear that they were not going to vote Labour. Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the fact that John Smith was not just a brilliant parliamentarian, but a very astute and caring local constituency Member of Parliament?
I certainly do not disagree with that. He seemed to operate brilliantly at every level. He had the common touch. When we took people in to see him, he always knew how to communicate with them, whatever their background. As I said in an intervention, he would sometimes give people a steely look. When he first met me, he said, “I don’t know what to make of you. You’re MP for Huddersfield, but you don’t have a Yorkshire accent. I don’t know where you’re from,” which was quite perceptive of him. But we worked well together.
John was looking at new ideas all the time. He and Giles Radice asked me to be, I think, the very first person to work in the Department for Education on the employment side, so that we could develop a proper youth policy that covered not just conventional education, but training, job opportunities and so much else. I am a Co-operative Member of Parliament, and John was deeply interested in co-operatives. The interest in the Co-operative Development Agency and all that was down to him. He was passionate about it, and chaired the international co-operative movement for some time. Whatever he looked at, he had the passion and ability to push on.
John was also what we always need in this Labour movement of ours—a talent spotter. I remember when he had been at the Beaconsfield by-election, he came bustling back into the Commons and said, “It was a hard day and we’re never going to win Beaconsfield, but there’s a brilliant new candidate there—Tony Blair, his name is. I think we’ve got to get him a safe seat somewhere.” He was a talent spotter, even in terms of seeing new Members of Parliament coming in, identifying their skills and giving them a hand.
He was a bruiser, absolutely—you should not cross him. If you crossed him, politically or personally, he did not forget easily. When we had an attempt by Militant—a left-wing Trotskyist group—to take over the Labour party, he led the fightback, with Roy Hattersley, Gerald Kaufman and other giants of the Labour party who identified the problem and formed a new group called Solidarity. I think that our Chief Whip would probably have painful memories of the battles of those days. When that triumvirate said, “We’re not going to take this,” John Smith was central to the fight to keep the Labour party as a central, democratic socialist party. We all owe him for the fact that he did that.
I think there was a bit of a myth after John died that he was almost a saint. John Smith was not a saint, I can tell you. He was not a bad man, but he loved life. He and Elizabeth were a great host and hostess at a party. We would never forget the lovely feeling of inclusion that the Smiths gave whenever they entertained.
When John become ill—when he had his heart attack—many of us were absolutely terrified. We were really, really concerned. We knew that we had to support him. There was a sort of little mafia. We used to co-ordinate to make sure that he got home at a reasonable time—that he did not stay in the House precincts too late and got his taxi back to the Barbican, where he lived on the 35th floor. I took on something of a role, because he lived in No. 352 and I lived in No. 92. Gwyneth Dunwoody lived in No. 112, so there was a kind of political and parliamentary presence. It was sometimes a very good excuse for me to say to John, “I’m going home—shall we share a cab?”, which we sometimes did.
Sadly, I was in my flat in the Barbican on that dreadful morning when someone rang me from John’s flat and said that he had collapsed in the shower. By the time I got out into the reception area, John was being brought out on a stretcher, very ill indeed. It was a very sad moment. I had a feeling of lost, missed opportunity for this person who had such a range of talents, passion and moral purpose. He wanted to change the world for the better—and to do it now. He was intolerant of waiting too long before the changes in low pay and the minimum wage—all those things—could be achieved.
I remember John fondly and dearly. I hope we can keep that spirit alive. He was not a saint, but a passionate, moral man who wanted to make change. He also wanted to have good politics—yes, to have a good fight and really scupper someone in this place, but to go outside and have a civilised relationship afterwards.
The quality of John’s life and the sort of environment he engendered was something all of us can learn from. I have never spoken on any occasion about John Smith. I loved him dearly. He had a huge influence on my life, and for Elizabeth and his daughters we should say today how much we appreciated what he did in touching our lives.
I am grateful and honoured to be called to speak briefly in this debate to pay tribute to John Smith. I am pleased to follow the very personal testimonial of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman).
We have heard some moving speeches, but we have also heard about John’s humour. In case colleagues have not seen it, there is a great compilation of clips on Twitter of John Smith at the Dispatch Box tearing the Tory Front Bench apart. I mean no disrespect to the present Tory Front Bench, but it is so funny that even Lord Heseltine is laughing, and he is the butt of most of the jokes, which shows that it is really worth watching. It was posted by David Ward, and I have retweeted it, so colleagues can find it easily.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for affording this time, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. I did not know John very well. I was chair of the London Labour party for nearly 10 years, from 1988 until 1997, and I only met him on a few occasions. Neil—now Lord—Kinnock saved the Labour party from the hard left and turned around our fortunes, making us a serious party again. John Smith, as leader after Neil, consolidated that process and set us on course to win the 1997 general election.
In the 1980s, the capital was not a happy place for our party. The Sun branded us the “Labour loony left” or, more precisely, the “London Labour loony left”. But through the support of the national leadership and the great efforts of professional staff like Terry Ashton, Margaret—now Baroness—McDonagh, David Evans and David Wilkinson, and hundreds and thousands of councillors, activists and volunteers, London became Labour heartland again. John Smith drove that progress, and one of his first regional visits on becoming leader was to London, which was not always a popular place for Labour leaders to visit in those days.
John’s belief in Europe is chronicled in today’s New European by his former head of policy from 1988 to 1994, David Ward, who is here listening to the debate. David has supplied me with a reminder of John’s legacy, some of which has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South and others. The John Smith Trust runs the fellowship programme, which promotes good governance. It is very positive to see that the Foreign Office is funding the trust, which I hope will continue.
One spin-off from the trust is EASST—the Eastern Alliance for Safe and Sustainable Transport—which was founded by Emma MacLennan and other trust alumni. Emma, who is married to David Ward, was Labour’s social security and taxation policy officer during John Smith’s time as shadow Chancellor and leader. EASST promotes road safety in former Soviet countries and saves lives there. More recently, John’s legacy includes the John Smith Centre at Glasgow University, promoting leadership in public service. Kezia Dugdale has just been appointed its first director, and I wish her well. Both those important programmes keep alive John’s strong commitment to democracy and public service.
As we have heard, some of John’s policy legacies were the national minimum wage, which he strongly supported as both shadow Chancellor and leader; constitutional reform and devolution, including on freedom of information, the Ministry of Justice and Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and internal party reforms, including one member, one vote and electoral college revisions, as mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), a fellow Holyrood boy from Glasgow.
John was known for his commitment to social justice, and his strongest belief was that social justice and economic efficiency went hand in hand, hence the Commission on Social Justice. I am told he believed that party politics was like an aeroplane—you need a wing on the left and a wing on the right, and if you don’t have two wings, the beast won’t fly. Sometimes we forget that in modern party politics, in both the main parties.
John Smith’s incredible wit and debating skills in the Chamber led him to being credited, as we have heard, with provoking the resignations of Leon Brittan over Westland and of Nigel Lawson over Sir Alan Walters, Mrs Thatcher’s economic adviser.
On “Desert Island Discs”, John’s luxury item was a case of champagne. He told Sue Lawley that when he had drunk it, he would send a message in a bottle asking for more champagne. He was tickled to receive correspondence from a member of the public rebuking him for being so stupid for not knowing that you cannot put corks back into champagne bottles. Apparently, he loved that letter.
I would like to conclude, like my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South, by quoting from John Smith’s last leader’s speech to the Brighton Labour conference of 1993. This passage is perhaps a little more tribal than my hon. Friend’s, but this is a measure of the time and of his incisiveness. John said:
“Today I offer the British people a better way and a clear choice: a choice between Labour’s high skill, high tech, high wage economy, and John Major’s dead-beat, sweatshop, bargain basement Britain; a choice between Labour’s opportunity society which invests, which educates and which cares, and the sad reality of neglect, division, and rising crime that is Tory Britain today; a choice between Labour’s commitment to democratic renewal, rights, and citizenship, and John Major’s centralised, secretive and shabby Government.”
In conclusion, we were robbed of a great Prime Minister. Britain would be a different place today if John Smith had been given the opportunity to serve and to lead our country. It is 25 years on, and I sincerely thank my hon. Friend and his supporters for giving the House the opportunity today to remember John and to pay a fitting tribute.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I follow some very moving and thoughtful contributions from Members who were obviously touched greatly by John’s influence in their lives. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for bringing forward this debate at such a pivotal moment in our political history. We can learn a lot from our political traditions, particularly those that John Smith epitomised, as we think about how to address the great challenges that face us today.
Although John Smith was born in 1938, some 51 years before I was born, his influence still affected me in some small ways. Reflecting on his death in May 1994, when I was just five years old and at primary school—primary 1—one of my earliest political memories was the grief that swept through my house. My parents were crying, and I remember that very vividly. I have only some faint memories of politics in the 1990s, and one of the earliest ones was John Smith’s death. Another one was Labour coming into government, and perhaps Princess Diana’s death. These were the things I remember from my childhood as the pivotal episodes of the 1990s in politics that influenced me as a small child.
John Smith’s death definitely struck a chord from a very early age because, after so much despair at the loss of the 1992 election, my parents had invested in the hope that Labour might finally come to power and achieve the changes, as it was seen at the time, to liberate our communities, which had been ravaged so terribly by Conservative party politics. There was a great deal of hope, and of lost hope in that moment, and that was definitely impressed on me from a young age. Tam Dalyell wrote about how he remembered it as similar to the death of Gaitskell in 1963 aged just 56. That was a similar episode of great potential and a great future Prime Minister lost to this country, and the potential of what that history could have entailed and what it could have meant had it not been altered in such a terrible way.
The key lessons from John Smith’s political tradition and his political behaviour are that he was suspicious of factional demagoguery and of opportunist political spivs who crafted their values in managerialist speak. However, he was also very intolerant of his party being in impotent opposition. He yearned for Labour to return to government, and that was evident in his speeches and the way he addressed this House. In truth, he was a complex mixture of different things that influenced him as a person. There was the ruthless Glasgow University debater, which is a great tradition; the Edinburgh lawyer, which is another great tradition; and the emotional west highlander. He came from a very beautiful part of the world.
In Tam Dalyell’s obituary, there is a reference to Calum MacDonald who was Member of Parliament for the Western Isles at the time of John Smith’s death. He observed:
“That John Smith was a West Coast Highlander by birth and background came across strongly in three ways. First, that socialism for John was not about dry theories on narrow sectional interests, but about values, principles, and moral beliefs. Second was his great democratic and egalitarian quality—that he could relax with absolute ease in any circle of people. And third, the sense he gave of being a man with a healthy ‘hinterland’—a man with a passion for politics but also with strong roots in his family, in Scottish society, and the land that he came from.”
John Smith’s presence was often felt. I went to Glasgow University, and one of the first things I did was joint its union. Anyone who joins Glasgow University union cannot miss John Smith, because he is there facing every student who walks into that building as a wonderful bronze bust that stares from the top of the stairs of the debating chamber, and simply says on it “Friend of the Union”. That is what encapsulated the spirit of John Smith.
Working-class people often go to Glasgow University, which is quite unusual in Britain because most of its students are home students and tend to come from the city. It has a fine working-class tradition, and because of that debating chamber where—like so many politicians from across Scotland—John Smith cut his teeth, he came to this House without fearing it and with a healthy understanding of how it works. Working-class people who went into politics cut their teeth at the Glasgow University union, which to this day is still the greatest debating union in the world. John Smith did a great deal to achieve that. He won the Observer mace for the union in 1962 and was convener of debates. He formed that great tradition along with Donald Dewar.
My maths teacher at school, Mrs McKee, used to tell me about going to see John and Donald who were a great double act in the chamber of Glasgow University. She recounted a particularly memorable occasion in November 1963, when the debate had to be suspended because someone burst in and said that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. It is interesting how those great swathes of history can touch each other in such ways, and perhaps the great figures of that period influenced John’s politics, just as he in turn influenced us. That is the great thing about institutions such as university unions. They build a great community, and even though I never knew John and he died when I was a small child, I still sensed the golden thread that runs through those institutions and inspires those who come after. That is a real sense of immortality. A person dies once when they physically die, but they would die a second time if their memory was lost, and keeping that memory and understanding alive is critical.
Until recent years, the university union held a biannual dinner and debate in honour of John Smith, and I remember that Tom Clarke, the predecessor of my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), came to speak to us. He spoke movingly about John being such a lovely man and someone who did not suffer fools gladly. He was also a great friend to people across political traditions and divides. He was not sectarian or petty. He was certainly tribal and firm in his beliefs, but he maintained friendships despite that. We should remember that important point in our current politics.
After his election in 1970, John did not necessarily pursue those things that would lead to progression in the political hierarchy, and in 1971, he voted, along with 68 Labour colleagues, against the Whip on joining the common market. He told the Commons that day that
“economic forces must somehow be brought under popular control and be fashioned towards social and political ends that the people determine”—[Official Report, 26 July 1971; Vol. 822, c. 131.]
We should remember that fine sentiment today as we consider our future relationship with the rest of the world.
In 1974, when Labour was on the cusp of coming into government and defeating the Heath Government, John made another watershed decision that might come across as counterintuitive. He said that he did not want to take up the post of Solicitor General for Scotland, because he did not want to be typecast in Scottish affairs and as a lawyer-politician. Perhaps I made a fateful decision when I decided to become a junior shadow Minister in the Scotland Office, but I am proud to have done so in the tradition of John Smith, who was a predecessor of mine and a shadow Scotland Office apparatchik.
John was quickly forgiven and joined the Department of Energy. Cutting across political traditions, he served under Tony Benn who was then Secretary of State for Energy. Benn tasked him with setting up the British National Oil Corporation in Glasgow. Today, it is an office building used by Santander, which encapsulates what Labour was trying to achieve in the 1970s and how it was turned over by Thatcherism. He set up a great institution, which was a vision for mobilising the great resources of North sea oil for the common good and the greater betterment of the nation. Sadly, his vision and the BNOC-Britoil building were dismantled and that tradition and opportunity was lost, but that was another example of John’s vision.
John was promoted to Minister of State under Michael Foot to pilot the Scotland devolution Bill through the Commons. Like Benn, Foot was full of praise for Smith’s loyalty and expertise. His excellent personal relations with Benn and Foot made it much more acceptable that a tough right-winger should be become a Cabinet Minister from 1978. From 1979, until his appointment as the leader of the Labour Party in 1992, he won every shadow Cabinet election.
On his advocacy of devolution, despite much criticism and opposition within the Labour party, John said:
“It is the Labour Party which has campaigned to get a Scottish Assembly established. No other political party has pioneered the way in which this Labour Party has.”
Indeed, he had disdain for the intransigence on the constitution of both the Conservative party and the nationalist traditions on this question. He recognised that the United Kingdom has great benefit to Scotland, but that it is over-centralised. He sought to create a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh that would give better government to Scotland, while strengthening the United Kingdom. Then, as now, that is the preferred view of most of the people of Scotland, as regularly tested in opinion polls both before and since the 1997 and 2014 referendums. However, he also recognised that not responding imaginatively and vigorously to the need to reform the constitutional structure of Britain would create such tensions from a notion of a democratic deficit and regional imbalance that would only serve to render the fracturing of the United Kingdom altogether as the more likely outcome.
John Smith said in 1992 that there were two forces sawing away at the legs that support the Union: one was the nationalists, who wished to destroy the United Kingdom; and the other was the stupid Conservative party, whose members blundered on oblivious to the consequences that their arrogant actions were having for the future integrity of the United Kingdom. That was borne out in the Conservative party’s opposition to the creation of the Scottish Parliament. And of course the SNP boycotted the Scottish constitutional convention and opposed devolution at the 1997 general election. It is nice to see that John’s understanding of the problem and its solution was proven right by history. There is now much consensus on how he saw the future develop.
John was very proud of the Labour party: proud of its name and proud of its history. He was confident of the contribution it could make to the future progress of our country. He was also proud of Scotland, saying:
“as a Scot myself, representing a Scottish constituency, born and brought up in Scotland, living and wishing to continue living in Scotland, a member of a Scots profession, with children at Scottish schools, and having roots too deep in Scotland to wish to ever sever them, I think I am as entitled as any separatist to speak for my fellow countrymen.”
In the particularly vicious discourse that prevails in Scotland in the wake of the 2014 referendum, those sentiments ought to be heard far and wide across Scotland.
On the Labour party, John said it was:
“a united and a determined party, impatient for the responsibility of power. Let us communicate our resolve, our ambitions, our values, to the people. For they are ready, they are so ready to listen to the message of hope and of confidence which Labour proudly proclaims.”
Sadly, death robbed him of the opportunity to serve, but the Labour Government of 1997 delivered his unfinished business of home rule. His friend from his days on the floor of the university union to the Floor of this House, Donald Dewar, said at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, almost 20 years ago to the day:
“A Scottish Parliament. Not an end: a means to greater ends.”
As John Smith said,
“What’s the point of being in politics, if you can’t speak up for the people who can’t speak up for themselves?”
That was the greater end to which John Smith sought to achieve a Scottish Parliament. In his maiden speech, he spoke up for his constituents from mining communities about how poverty was affecting them. That must be our task today: to demonstrate the same courage in speaking for the interests of people who cannot speak up for themselves across our constituencies and countries and to share John Smith’s optimism for what public service can achieve so that we can realise our capacity as a nation and a society to set our own objectives and to set about achieving them in a spirit or resolute determination. May he rest in peace.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney). I add my thanks and congratulations to the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (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.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for securing this debate. We are here to pay tribute to one of my predecessors, John Smith, on the 25th anniversary of his death. As a Member of Parliament, first for North Lanarkshire and then for Monklands East, John represented communities that are now in my constituency, including Carnbroe, Shawhead and Whifflet. He served North Lanarkshire and its communities with distinction in this House and I know that he is held in high regard locally.
When I learned that this debate was to take place, I spoke to another great parliamentary champion of North Lanarkshire, Tom Clarke, who I know is watching today and who was a good friend of John Smith’s. These are his reflections on John as a politician and as a friend:
“John Smith and I first met when he was an outstanding debater at Glasgow University and I was a Young Socialist. We were friends for a very long time. John could have a short fuse at times, but I had never known him to hold grudges. His great gift was his ability to relate warmly with people, whatever their background. He was as at home with miners and steelworkers when they were fighting to save their industries as he was when he met with international leaders.
I was fortunate in being able to be with John for two days before he died when we attended and gave evidence to the Boundary Commission which was considering proposals for our neighbouring constituencies. There was very little that we did not discuss.
I retain the view that while he took his role seriously, the post he held rested lightly on his shoulders and he was looking forward to the challenges of serving as Prime Minister. It remains one of my greatest regrets that history denied him that opportunity.”
I thank both John and Tom for their tireless service in this House on behalf of the people of North Lanarkshire.
John had a distinguished political career and was regarded as a fine parliamentarian. As a Minister in the Labour Government of 1974 to 1979, he was responsible for the initial Scottish and Welsh devolution proposals, as we have heard. He continued to champion the cause of devolution throughout his career; I think he would be proud that this week we are marking 20 years of devolution in Scotland and Wales.
Many commentators have speculated on what a John Smith-led Labour Government would have achieved in the UK. We know that John championed a national minimum wage at a time when it was not popular with some sections of the trade union movement. We know that his Government would have ensured that the richest in our society paid their fair share to support our public services. Indeed, it was John who advocated a 50p tax rate for the highest earners when he served as shadow Chancellor during the 1992 general election. He once said, referring to high tax payers,
“One should shoulder that obligation as part of one’s citizenship and be proud of it.”
We also know that his Government would probably not have led the UK into the disastrous Iraq war.
John Smith’s legacy lives on to this day. It is a fine tribute to him to be here today and to mark those 25 years. The John Smith Trust, formed in 1996, continues his work in promoting good governance, social justice and the rule of law by helping to develop the next generation of leaders committed to making a difference in their countries and societies. I reflect on the fact that many people across the United Kingdom still regret that John Smith was never able to serve as Prime Minister. As I said in my maiden speech—I have heard it said again today—he was one of the best Prime Ministers that this country never had.
I remember the day of John Smith’s death. I was working as a postman at the time and I remember his death because we had suffered for so many years under the Thatcher Government. I was a young man, working, and I was devastated that day, just like everyone else. I had just become a trade union representative. I stood in silence when I heard the news. I think that the whole country did, such was the mark of the man who was John Smith.
I am committed to following in the footsteps of both John and Tom Clarke, representing the people whom they once represented here in the mother of Parliaments. It is an honour and a privilege to do so.
I vividly recall the morning the BBC announced that John Smith had been taken ill. I had a meeting with Liz Pearce, who had been my general election agent and who was a councillor. She had just won us our first position in Redbridge, where we were going to form a Labour administration. Liz worked for me, and we had to have a discussion about the implications of that win for our relationship and whether or not she could continue to work for me. I was expecting it to be a difficult discussion. Then the message came through that John Smith had died. We cancelled our discussion immediately. We could not talk; we could not think. I remember coming here later. We always remember occasions which have such a huge, traumatic impact.
I knew John Smith reasonably well. I knew him when I worked at the Labour party headquarters, in the policy directorate and then in the international section. At the time of the 1992 election, I was the head of that section. From time to time, I would arrange for him to meet incoming delegations. There were good discussions with the Social Democratic Party of Germany about how to modernise the policy of the Labour party.
John Smith, although he was the shadow Chancellor, was much more than that. Neil Kinnock was trying to save the Labour party and bring us back from the abyss of the terrible period that we had suffered, to expel the Trotskyites and modernise the Labour party to make it electable. Although Roy Hattersley, now Lord Hattersley, was the deputy leader, many Members of Parliament said to me that the real deputy leader was John Smith. It was crucial that both wings of the party, the centre left and the centre right, worked together in that modernisation project.
Other Members have already said how important John Smith was in relation to many of the policy reforms of that period. He was also clearly politically principled and brave. The shadow Budget that he published just before the 1992 election, which has not been mentioned yet, was controversial. Some people said—wrongly, in my view—that that was the reason why we did not win the 1992 election, but I remember a conversation with a woman in a queue at a bus stop when I was campaigning for election in ’92. I was fighting a very marginal constituency—we were number 61 on the list and Labour had to win 62 seats to be the biggest party. To cut a long story short, I got here and many others did not. This woman had a pram and young children, and I said, “So are you going to be supporting Labour? You’ll get £6 more; we are very concerned to help people like you.” She said, “No, you’ll just take it away from me in tax.” I asked, “Do you pay income tax? Are you working?” “No,” she said; nevertheless she was convinced she was going to lose it. That is the problem we had sometimes in politics—how to cut through the misunderstanding.
I remember the debates around Maastricht when I came into Parliament in ’92. I remember the discussions we had after Neil Kinnock stood down and John Smith had been elected at a special conference by 90% of the vote for leader against Bryan Gould. Bryan Gould was my constituency neighbour in Dagenham, and I was under some encouragement and pressure from some people locally to support my constituency neighbour, and I did, for deputy leader, but I had no doubt who was going to be the best leader.
John Smith played a brilliant tactical game in those Maastricht debates. He was able to embarrass and undermine the John Major Government on so many occasions. We had one occasion when there was a tied vote and the then Speaker gave the casting vote in favour of the Government, but the next day it was realised that there had been a miscount and the Government had won by one. We have had similar scenarios recently, but fortunately, so far as I am aware, the vote was accurately counted on that occasion.
We had a genius and a real intelligence in our leader at that time and we were surging ahead. Labour in opposition in 1994 was 20 points or more ahead in the opinion polls. going into European Parliament elections in 1994, Labour was going to do incredibly well. This was in the pre-proportional days, and we won all 10 seats in London. The campaign and platform was established under John Smith, but it was Margaret Beckett who took us into those elections because tragically we no longer had John.
The party then moved to a younger generation, and the modernisation project, started by Neil Kinnock and continued by John Smith, was then continued under Tony Blair. That led to not one, not two, but three general election victories, and all the great achievements of that Labour Government, which, sadly, are not recognised enough by some in the Labour party today. I am not going to make a speech attacking the current leadership of the Labour party; I have done that before and will not do so today. I will simply say that John Smith, on this Europe day, would have read the election manifestos for the European elections with some degree of concern. He would have wanted a passionate case to be made for remaining in the European Union and for reforming it, as he argued, in speeches that have been quoted today, when he broke the Whip all those years ago, and as the Labour party argued, under his leadership, in the 1994 European election campaign. A moderate, mainstream and—in Labour terms—centre-right political leader, he was passionately pro-European, and in those days, that led to a significant electoral victory in those European elections. Let us look back 25 years to what could have been, and then look at where we are today.
John Smith had some very nice human qualities. I remember sitting in the House of Commons Library late one night in 1993; there was almost no one else there, but suddenly I saw the Leader of the Opposition walking around looking for a book. We have not often seen Leaders of the Opposition of any party doing that in recent years—[Interruption.] I do not mean reading books; I mean walking round the Library in a normal kind of way. Also in 1993, John organised a reception in his room for all of us who had been elected a year earlier, on 9 April 1992. I was not there at the start of the reception because I had to rush from hospital, where my wife had given birth to our daughter. I remember this vividly, because when I arrived, everyone applauded me when it was announced that I had become a father that day. That is a strong personal memory for me.
I also recall John saying, in that discussion with all of us who had entered Parliament the year before, “You have all got to learn how this place works. Spend your time understanding parliamentary procedure. Understand how Committees, questions and early-day motions work. Get to know what you will be doing here. I am not going to make any of you members of my shadow team. I want you to get an understanding of this place over the next few years. Some of you will be Ministers when we have a Labour Government, but I will want people who really understand how this place works.” What a contrast that is to the things that have happened since then.
John Smith was a great parliamentarian. He loved Parliament and he loved the debates. He is, and will be, sorely missed.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ilford South (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 the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (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 the hon. Member for Rhondda (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 the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (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 the hon. Member for Huddersfield (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.
I share the last sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray). We remember the man.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for securing this debate, because John Smith is still a towering figure for many of us. The words spoken today on both sides of the House are tribute to the high regard in which John Smith is held not simply by those who knew him but by those who are, in some ways, heirs to what he stood for.
The hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) is right in saying that Conservative Members claim John Smith as a fellow parliamentarian, which is right and proper. And it is right that the Scots in this Chamber claim John as a Scot, and they should be proud that John was such a proud Scot. We, of course, claim him as Labour, because John was Labour. Whatever John Smith was in his life, he stood for the values and principles on which the Labour party was founded and he took them forward so ably.
It is almost axiomatic that John’s moral view of the world was that social justice was at the heart of what he stood for in politics and of what he believed the Labour party had to stand for. That is an eternal message for my party, and politics across the world needs people who will challenge injustice on behalf of those who cannot speak up for themselves—we have heard those words repeated on numerous occasions—and that is the hallmark of what John Smith was all about.
John Smith was, in many ways, a model Member of Parliament from a Chief Whip’s point of view. Madam Deputy Speaker, as a former Chief Whip you will know the value of such discipline. The present Labour Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown), will not be dismayed if I point out, as others have done, that although John Smith broke the Whip on only one occasion, he did so on a matter of fundamental principle—his passionate belief that Britain is a necessary part of a larger structure, the then European Economic Community. He could not, therefore, go along with the mainstream of Labour votes at the time.
I therefore use this opportunity to quote another leader of the Labour party who is known for having broken the Labour Whip once or twice, the present Leader of the Opposition. He has asked me to read these words into the record:
“John Smith was Labour to his core. His politics were those of a genuine social democrat—he promoted equality, supported trade unionism, and believed in a kinder, more caring society.
Not only that, but he was an exceptionally decent and inclusive Leader of the Labour Party. I joined the Labour Party in the 1960s, and of all the Labour leaders I knew, John was the one I admired the most.
I will never forget his speech to the Labour Party Conference in 1993…promising the same legal rights to every worker from day one of their employment, part-time or full-time, temporary or permanent.
It has taken too long, but the next Labour government will deliver on John’s commitment.
His death was a tragedy, not just for his own family and friends, but also for the Labour Party, and the country as a whole.”
What lies within those words is sometimes missed. It has been said today that John Smith was moderate and right-of-centre in Labour party terms. Actually, that is not a strictly accurate interpretation of what he was about; he was more radical than people believe. The fact is that he was comfortable with Labour’s traditions—comfortable talking about employment rights and advocating them, as I heard him do many times in this Chamber when he was shadow Secretary of State for Employment during the passage of Norman Tebbit’s draconian anti trade union Bill. John Smith was a passionate defender of the rights of people in the workplace. He was sponsored by the Amalgamated Society of Boilermakers, along with my good friend Gerald Kaufman—perhaps the two most unlikely boilermakers ever to hit this place. Nevertheless, they were committed to the principles of that union and what trade unionism was about in the Britain of that time, and that remains relevant to the United Kingdom of today.
As has been mentioned, John could also claim significance in the debate about the minimum wage. I was on the shadow employment team for a time during that period: we were told by the Government that the minimum wage would cost 1 million jobs, which was then hiked to 2 million jobs. It did not cost those jobs, of course—it was part of creating a fairer society. The interesting point is that while John Smith was leader the issue was massively controversial, even within the Labour party. Some of our major trade unions at the time were saying that it would erode wages for their own members. That argument was strenuously put forward, but John Smith was one of those who said that that argument could not prevail. People were on derisory wages that have been forgotten now. Hairdressers were sometimes on wages so outrageous that it was impossible for them to support their families. Fighting for that kind of social justice was radical, and the hallmark of the then Leader of the Opposition.
John had enormous intellectual gifts as a parliamentarian. Almost every friend and colleague I have spoken to about him has a memory of John’s decision-making capacity. He would come to quick and robust conclusions about what was right and proper, sometimes on issues that mattered but did not necessarily have a strong policy bent. Lord Foulkes—then George Foulkes, shadow Foreign Minister—travelled with John Smith to China. They had many engagements with the Chinese Deputy Prime Minister, who would raise questions of policy. John would turn to George, who told me he would stammer out some quick response about what he hoped the policy was. John instantly turned it into something that sounded credible and competent, and was accepted by the Chinese Deputy Prime Minister as the voice of a party ready for government.
I saw John Smith in a similar light when he took on controversial policies. The promotion of comprehensive education was an issue in the ’90s just as it is today. John was easily persuaded that social justice was on the side of taking forward that reforming step. That was controversial, but he was prepared to take on controversy if he believed it was the right thing to do.
As a politician, John was gifted and formidable in this place. Reference was made to the YouTube videos that David Ward has made available. David will be glad to know that I watched one of them—it is some years since we have seen each other, so I am delighted to see him in the Under-Gallery—and it was interesting to see how full the Chamber was when John Smith spoke. He was one of those people: everyone would be encouraged to come in to listen to him—to his bulldozer drive against the Government of the day, his forensic skills, his strong intellectual ability and, of course, his devastating wit. Sometimes, that devastating wit was most telling of all. The then Prime Minister John Major had apparently written a chapter in a book about football called “We’ll Support You Evermore”; as John Smith said at the time, it was obviously not a Tory party publication. I would venture to say, without introducing too much bitter politics into the debate, that we could make the same claim today.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East will not be unhappy if I recall the fact that although people talk about John being a kind man—and he was; he was very forgiving and prepared to heal the enmities, or at least some of them, that existed in his time—he was also very caustic when he wanted to be. My right hon. Friend was at the Dispatch Box as a junior shadow Treasury Minister being harangued by Government Members, three of whom stood up to challenge him to give way on some point. Gordon Brown was on my right hon. Friend’s right, giving him a stream of statistics and a robust intellectual defence of the Labour case; John Smith turned to my right hon. Friend and said, “Just pick the most stupid.” That was not reported in the Hansard of the day.
I wish to turn for a few moments to John Smith as a family man. Those of us who met and know Elizabeth—she is Baroness Smith, but Elizabeth is probably a kinder way to refer to her—know that she is still intensely proud all these years on, just as John’s daughters, Sarah, Jane and Catherine, are intensely proud of their father. John was a family man, although as Elizabeth said to me, as he was in political life, he was a family man in very short spurts. They still enormously value the family holidays and family time they had on the island of Iona. It was so important, not only for John as a human being, getting himself away from being the man of politics, but for John as a man more widely, with his family being part of something wider for that wider human being.
In John’s memory, the John Smith Trust continues to do incredibly valuable and powerful work, particularly in central Asia. John was passionately committed not simply to social justice but to the principles of good government that have been carried forward in the determination to train a generation of political leaders in central Asia in particular. They bear his name as fellows of the John Smith Trust. That is a remarkable signal to us all.
The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts said that John Smith was a humble man; I am not quite sure that I entirely agree with that description, because one of the good things about John’s background—not only his family background but his time at the University of Glasgow debating society and all the rest—was that he had confidence in himself, his politics and his belief system. He had confidence in his humanity, which is important. So he was not a humble man, but he was a simple man. A simple man is probably the most vividly fitting description when we think of the place that John chose for his burial on Iona: a very simple grave and memorial. Something very simple for a very decent man who graced this place, graced our politics and graced those who knew him.
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 the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) and the right hon. Member for Derby South (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 the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), who I believe was five at the time of John’s death, or as the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (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.] The hon. Member for Walsall South (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 the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), who made an excellent contribution—mentioned his basic human decency. It was also brought out very well by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (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.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (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.
This has been a worthwhile debate to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of John Smith, and I am grateful to all Members from across the Chamber who have contributed some of their stories, which have been moving and appropriate for this commemorative anniversary, and I have enjoyed hearing them. I may have been listening to them for the second or third time in the past few weeks, but I have certainly enjoyed hearing them in public. I pay tribute to everyone who knew John and to the staff team who worked with him. Sometimes when I sit in this place, I get a bit envious because I have not experienced some of the history of this Chamber. Indeed, I felt a bit envious this afternoon, listening to the stories of people who worked with John and who saw him in the flesh at the Dispatch Box, doing what he did best. I think the greatest tribute is to try to emulate our political heroes, and we should certainly all try to do that in this case.
I wrote down some words as Members were making their contributions: outstanding, civilized, missed, a great, inclusive, dignified, a listener, formidable, humility, tolerance, gifted, social justice, forgiving, humane, community, responsibility, fun, the common touch, moral commitment, caring, traditional, idealistic, friend. Those words just sum up what John Smith’s life, including his political life, was about. I am glad that we have been able to commemorate this anniversary in the House. As I have said, all our thoughts over this weekend—especially on the 25th anniversary on Sunday 12 May—will be with Sarah, Jane, Catherine, Elizabeth and the wider family.
It has been a very powerful and moving debate. You have all done a giant of a man proud, and I hope that his family and friends will appreciate it; I am sure they will.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the 25th anniversary of the death of John Smith, former leader of the Labour Party.