Workhouse to Westminster

The chances are that you haven’t heard of Trevor Smith, or to be more precise, Professor Lord Smith of Clifton.  He was the prime financial and intellectual force behind the surge for democracy in the 1990s when Charter 88 was rampant under Anthony Barnett, and the Blair governments were legislating for a spate of constitutional reforms.

Smith is a man of singular entrepreneurial vision and remarkable political energy who most unusually followed through his many ideas in action.  He was a political scientist of distinction when he took on the chair of the Joseph Rowntree Social Services Trust in 1987 and transformed it into the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust with a strong democratic direction.  You should know that he became a close friend and colleague of mine.

His autobiography, Workhouse to Westminster, is published this month and gives a nice rollicking account of his family background – his father spent time as a boy with his family in a workhouse, polishing the stone floor – as well as his proactive chairing of the Trust for 12 years, his ‘Lucky Jim” years as an academic, his time as a reforming Vice Chancellor of Ulster University and as a Lib Dem activist and Lib Dem peer in the House of Lords (where he campaigned vigorously for its abolition and his place in it).

Smith’s account of his life is frequently bitingly candid, very funny and gossipy (on, for example, the Jeremy Thorpe affair). I first met him when he was the Trust’s representative on the New Statesman board just as I took on the editorship.  He was not my type of person as he dressed like an old fogey; was a High Church Anglican; and a member of the Reform Club.   However, I soon saw that he was not on the board to make up the numbers, and I began to relish his directness and salty sense of humour.

So that when the magazine’s conceited CEO (who had been foisted on me) refused to fund my proposal to launch Charter 88 which I saw as a joint promotion exercise for the magazine as well as a political enterprise, I turned to Trevor and asked for a £5,000 loan. He agreed at once: he says, “the proposals in the draft charter for improving democracy and protecting civil liberties coincided exactly with my thinking”. We soon obtained backing from some 350 well-known signatories and the rest is history: Trevor went on to sustain Charter 88 with major funding during the 1990s when the Blair governments were legislating for a programme of constitutional reforms – devolution, human rights, freedom of information.

Smith pays tribute to the contribution that John Smith, Labour’s leader in the early 1990s, made in committing his party to reform, but the impact that Charter 88 made after that in mobilising opinion under Barnett’s inspired leadership undoubtedly obliged Blair reluctantly – and incompletely – to fulfil Smith’s legacy. The Daily Telegraph recognised Charter 88 as the most successful pressure group of the decade.

Smith also initiated other projects designed to encourage a more democratic culture in the UK and to strengthen the promotion of constitutional debate.  One was a 13-year series of opinion polls, the State of the Nation, measuring public attitudes towards constitutional issues over time and revealing, for example, that the public rated economic and social rights as highly as they did traditional civil and political rights.  Another was Democratic Audit, a research body at Essex University which audited the democratic performance of the British constitution (I was its director alongside the political philosopher, David Beetham).

Smith describes these and other initiatives and his time as Vice-Chancellor at Ulster amid the fiercely divided Northern Ireland society.  He recounts how a man with a deep Ulster brogue phoned when he was appointed to warn that “we will be looking after him”.  It turned out later that the threat came not from a terrorist but a member of the staff he was to inherit.  He details the history of an audacious project which he almost pulled off, establishing a “peaceline” campus in northern Belfast equidistant between the Catholic Falls Road and Protestant Shankill Road as a symbol of reconciliation (or as the officialese had it, a “confidence restoring measure”).  He steered this proposal through the self-regarding politics of Northern Ireland and Westminster to the point where Clinton, Blair and their wives were to attend a ceremony to mark the turning of the first sod. Unfortunately, he retired too soon, and his successor aborted it.

Smith omits one episode from his account when, as a board member of the Statesman, he helped save it as a political journal.  The over-ambitious board had lost something like £250,000 in fraud and had to put the magazine up for sale.  In desperation, the chair, Philip Whitehead, intended to sell to an Irish media group who planned to turn the Statesman into a news magazine; Smith warned me of this plan and that I and my CEO were about to be ambushed at a meeting with representatives of the Irish group.

So I turned up forewarned. Once at the meeting, I immediately and ostentatiously began taking notes. “What are you doing?” Whitehead demanded. I replied: “I think our readers deserve to know what is being done to their magazine, don’t you?”   End of.

Workhouse to Westminster, By Trevor Smith, £13.99 from The Caper Press (

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This entry was posted in Books and Op-eds.


  • Angie Harris 4th Oct '18 - 8:51am

    A great précis of a hugely enjoyable book. Trevor taught me as we languished through hours late into the night on the Bill that brought the Police Service of Northern Ireland into being, replacing the RUC at the instigation of Chris Patten. Trevor didn’t want much to do with the Bill – mainly because he disliked the police – any police – but he sat through it all with me as he caustically commented on the wilder interventions of the Ulster Unionist Peers – dismissing them with his rapier like wit. He made a difficult and contentious Bill bearable. A great man and a good friend as well as one of the finest Liberals I have ever known.

  • Peter Hirst 4th Oct '18 - 5:55pm

    If his memoirs can help to develop a national debate on how we can evolve democratically to a state fit for the 21st century, then his labours will not have been in vain. The question, “What does democracy mean to you?” is a good one that forces the electorate to answer this question. We seem as a nation to accept that our present way of doing things is written in stone.

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