When I tell people from across the country that I work in Rochdale they invariably say – “Is that Cyril Smith still alive?” I don’t tell them that I work in politics, or for the Liberal Democrats – just Rochdale! That is the mark of respect for someone who made a difference, and I am pleased to tell them that Sir Cyril is still making that difference. Whether it be writing his letters to our local paper, advising Paul Rowen, or just making his voice heard – Sir Cyril Smith will never change and neither should he.
I first met Cyril when I was 11 years old – my choir were doing ‘Good Morning Britain’ and Cyril happened to be a guest on the show. Two months later my choir appeared in Rochdale at Cyril’s invitation at the Gracie Fields Theatre. That was the first but certainly not the last time that I came to Rochdale.
When I arrived for work in October 2004, as Paul Rowen’s electoral agent, my first stop was the famous Emma Street address where Cyril has lived for 60 years. I was delighted to go and wasn’t let down by his charm, his sense of belonging to Rochdale, and promise that, despite being 77, that he would do everything within his considerable power to regain this seat that Labour had snatched in their landslide of 1997. During the 2005 General Election, Sir Cyril and his brother Norman did everything they could to help and with a majority of 442, they made a big difference. The Smith Brothers had left their mark on yet another General Election victory for the Lib Dems.
You’ve got to come to Rochdale to understand properly Sir Cyril’s popularity. He doesn’t get out much these days, but when he does… Rochdale comes to a standstill. Many people remember the Cyril from the 1970s and early ’80s. The Cyril who was Chief Whip during the Jeremy Thorpe scandal; the Cyril who appeared on national TV alongside his friends, the late Les Dawson, Ronnie Corbett, Bernard Manning, Jim Bowen, Jimmy Cricket and all the top comedians at the time; and the Cyril who constantly spoke up for his beloved town of Rochdale.
During that successful General Election in 2005 we came up with an idea. Cyril wanted to do everything possible but his mobility problems stopped that. What we did was get an old chair and leaflet streets the night before simply saying, “Sir Cyril Smith’s armchair will be on your street corner between 5pm and 6pm tommorow.” An hour before, people used to start queuing at the handily placed armchair – by the time Cyril arrived there would often be 30 or 40 people waiting to say hello to “Our Cyril”!
I know that Sir Cyril has been a valuable source of advice for Paul Rowen, Rochdale’s Lib Dem MP. I remember how proud Cyril was when Paul won, and they constantly speak. Sir Cyril for the gossip, and Paul for his advice and encouragement. Cyril is on the phone every day and his requests give you an understanding of why he was so popular. They are a mixture of kind advice, praise for Paul or the Council Group, or a bloody good rollicking for something or another.
Chris Davies, our North West MEP had it right when he said,
“Liberal leaders over the years may have lived in constant fear of the next missive from Emma Street but I can scarcely remember a time when Cyril did anything less than provide a huge boost for our party across the country. He can be a formidable foe, and (speaking from experience) the most loyal of friends.”
Helping organise Sir Cyril’s 80th Birthday Gala Concert has been a pleasure and a priviledge. The messages of support, love and appreciation for one of politics’ great characters has been an eye-opener. In the days of ‘Punch and Judy’ politics, it’s refreshing to see top politicians from all three main political parties queuing up with their warm tribute. Our leader Nick Clegg said,
“You have been a towering figure – not only in the political advancement of the Liberal Party, but also in the wider cause of liberalism. You were a beacon for our party in the 70s and 80s and continue to be an inspiration for the people of Rochdale and many others.”
Paul Rowen in Rochdale said,
“I have worked with Sir Cyril since I joined the Young Liberals over 30 years ago. He has been an amazing ambassador for our Town and a true inspiration for me personally. Although it’s been years since he left Parliament, he has still been unbelievably active. Since I got elected to Parliament, Sir Cyril has been a great source of advice and help. Indeed, I am still stopped in Parliament on a daily basis from MPs from all political parties enquiring about Cyril.”
Other politicians have left their tributes – John Major, Speaker Michael Martin, Lord Barnett, Lord Steel, Lord Ashdown, Lord Lee, Liz Lynne MEP, and his good friends Simon Hughes, Matthew Taylor, Sir Menzies Campbell, Sir Alan Beith, Nick Winterton and many, many more. Many celebrities have been also been in touch with kind words.
What means most to Cyril though? Well, it’s the messages from the people of Rochdale, Cyril’s extended family and that runs into thousands.
Rochdale is pulling out all the stops for his big day. The local paper, The Rochdale Observer, is doing a series of special editions to celebrate his big day. Rochdale Online, our popular local website have also done a number of tributes – many senior figures from our regional have taken the well trodded steps to his modest terraced house that he loves.
Looking back over Cyril’s life, he has achieved so much against all the odds. A look at his autobiography, Big Cyril, tells the story of someone who has given everything… and more! For any aspiring politician, the story of Cyril’s life is an amazing one and long may this continue. As the song goes… “Nice one Cyril!”
To leave your tribute to Sir Cyril Smith, please go to his FACEBOOK group.
* Dave Hennigan is Lib Dem Agent for Paul Rowen MP and Organiser for Rochdale.