Remembering John Smith 25 years on…

Twenty five years ago today, I was at work when someone came in and said that Labour leader John Smith had died. I was so shocked and sad at the loss of someone that, as far as I knew, everyone, no matter what party they were in, liked and respected.

He was a thoroughly decent man who, as Shadow Chancellor and Leader of the Opposition, handed the backsides of Tory ministers to them on a plate on a regular basis, but could also engage in constructive dialogue and had good relationships with them. I often wonder what would have happened if he had become Prime Minister, as he almost certainly would have in 1997. His administration may not have had the pizzazz of the Cool Britannia vibe, but I suspect it would have been very steady and not subject to the destructive factionalism that undermined Tony Blair.

The House of Commons held a debate to mark the 25th anniversary of his death. Our Christine Jardine spoke for us.

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.

Jamie Stone made an intervention to say that he was actually at the Scottish Conservative Conference as a reporter that day. He said that the whole Conference was incredibly shocked at the news of his death and many people expressed their respect for him.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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9 Comments

  • John Smith was a great man of integrity and decency.

    I doubt very much that he would have got tangled up in Bush’s Iraq War and he would have certainly not gone down the path of Academy Schools and part privatisation of the health service…….. we might even have avoided a Tory Government propped up by the Lib Dems in 2010 had he lived.

    His daughter Sarah is now very professional and highly competent BBC political journalist.

  • Chris Rennard 13th May '19 - 10:52am

    I was running the Lib Dem campaign in the Eastleigh parliamentary by-election when news came through that John Smith had died and we had to suspend our campaign. John Smith was self evidently a decent person. For much of the 25 years since then, people have assumed that it took the ‘genius’ of Tony Blair and ‘New Labour’ to bring an end to 18 years of Conservative Government. My own view is that John Smith would have become Prime Minister, but probably without the kind of majority (179) that Blair won. The Labour Party might then have been more likely to shift to Proportional Representation and a coalition with us would actually have been more likely at some point than the one which Paddy expected with Tony Blair. In this event, we would not have supported Bush’s war in Iraq and it might not have happened. It would also have been less likely that the Conservatives would have eventually returned to power and threatened our position in the EU with a referendum.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th May '19 - 3:08pm

    I remember it , well, as a young actor in a company who had been a member of the Labour party since early teens, a great loss was that of this fine man John Smith, if only is pointless, we can merely pay due respect.

  • Christine J is very good isn’t she?.

  • A very touching tribute from Christine Jardine. John Smith was clearly a man of great intellect and integrity who also epitomised qualities of human decency and compassion – he was widely respected and admired by supporters of all parties and none. Would that we actually knew how different British and Scottish politics could have been but for his tragically premature loss.

  • Richard Underhill 14th May '19 - 7:40pm

    As shadow Chancellor John Smith wanted to increase taxes in 1992 whereas Blair-Brown promised not to in 1997.
    Neil Kinnock was elected Labour leader on a left wing manifesto following Michael Foot (one of three left feet).
    Neil Kinnock sent John Smith to the Ribble Valley bye-election to present a moderate case and referring to his habit of hill climbing (Monroes).
    One of our MPs said at a rally, alongside Paddy Ashdown and our candidate that
    “Lancashire folks are not daft, they don’t vote Labour round here”.
    He was right, they didn’t.

  • Richard Underhill 15th May '19 - 8:41am

    13th May ’19 – 10:52am
    Labour was expecting to win in 1992 but lost narrowly.
    One Tory minister was so convinced that the Tories were out that he declined to seek re-election as an MP (Alan Clark, not to be confused with Ken Clarke).
    Labour leader Neil Kinnock was bedevilled for years by informal inquests. He went to the EU Commission. Subsequently he went to his former constituency and tried to explain that several of the things that Leavers were saying were factually wrong, but failed to convince many people. He accepted a peerage.

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