Obituary: Trevor Smith – Liberal Democrat Peer

I first met Trevor Smith fifty years ago when I arrived at the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust – now the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust – in 1970. I was Pratap Chitnis’ assistant and Trevor ran the Acton Society Trust which was, in effect the Trust’s research arm. We were in touch sporadically thereafter, meeting for the last time at Geoff Tordoff’s funeral in June 2019.

Trevor joined the Liberal Society at the London School of Economics in 1955 when the party was almost at its lowest ebb. He fought the 1959 general election in Lewisham West – at 22 the youngest candidate in the UK – but never fought another election. He retained his Liberal and Liberal Democrat membership but he chose an academic career and only again became publicly active politically when appointed as a Life Peer in 1997, not long before he retired.

Trevor was never prepared to allow what he regarded as self-seeking or unprofessional conduct to go unchallenged and controversy followed him around his academic posts. It was the same with his politics. His thirty-five year absence from Liberal politics did not inhibit his criticisms of the party and he wrote a number of articles in Liberator critical of the party’s management and direction, including calling for Nick Clegg’s resignation as leader in July 2014.

His final academic post in 1991 was as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster, the biggest university on the island of Ireland and based at four separate sites around the north. It was a brave job to take on, given the political situation in the province and the academic difficulties at the university. As ever he set about changing the top personnel and successfully challenging the entrenched attitudes at the university. He embarked on a number of imaginative and liberal initiatives including establishing Incore, the International Centre for Conflict Resolution, with the United Nations University, Tokyo. He also wanted to establish a fifth Ulster University campus on the Belfast peace line between the Shankill and the Falls Road, with entrances at each side.

Inevitably this was controversial, but Trevor worked skilfully with key academics to have the idea accepted. He managed to get President Bill Clinton, accompanied by Tony Blair, to cut the first sod on the site in 1998. Smith retired the following year and it greatly saddened him that in 2002 the Springvale campus was cancelled.

His other great involvement was with the political Rowntree Trust , including as its chair from 1987-99. For more than fifty years the Trust had been the major financial supporter of the Liberal Party and Trevor continued this but, not being enamoured of the effectiveness of party headquarters, the Trust’s grants were given directly to specific sections, particularly the Association of Liberal Councillors which was sufficiently financed to enable it to become arguably the most effective part of the party.

In the Lords Trevor initially wished to escape from Northern Irish politics but he was persuaded to take on this spokesmanship. With his long background there he was able to influence government policy on a number of issues.

He was not an easy colleague but his commitment to Liberalism and his intellectual capacity were recognised. He became increasingly immobile and he retired from the Lords in 2019.

* Michael Meadowcroft has been campaigning for Liberalism for sixty-two years! He has served in just about every capacity in the party and in elected offices, including MP for Leeds West, 1983-87. He then spent twenty years working in new and emerging democracies across the world

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2 Comments

  • Denis Loretto 15th May '21 - 2:19pm

    “Trevor was never prepared to allow what he regarded as self-seeking or unprofessional conduct to go unchallenged” says Michael. I would go further and say that there was very little about anything that Trevor allowed to go unchallenged! And yet he displayed a ready wit and personal warmth in parallel with his provocative remarks. I got to know him well in the Reform Club where he was often seen at the centre of a small group enjoying a post-prandial glass of claret.
    His work in Northern Ireland was much appreciated and he will be sadly missed.

  • The Guardian has published an obituary for Lord Smith https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/may/09/lord-smith-of-clifton-obituary
    When I was a trainee accountant in London my bosses son was a lecturer at the University of Ulster in Belfast, which somehow seemed to be largely unaffected by the troubles going on around it.
    Lord Smith clearly made a significant contribution to conflict resolution with the establishment of Incore, the International Centre for Conflict Resolution, with the United Nations University, Tokyo and the initiative for the Springvale campus in Belfast was an inspirational idea, albeit one that did not ultimately come to fruition.

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