Educated at Dunoon Grammar School and the University of Glasgow, John graduated with an MA in 1960 and LLB in 1963. During his time at Glasgow he was an active member of the University Labour Club and served as its Chairman in the early 1960s. John was also an accomplished debater, winning the Scotsman trophy with the future First Minister of Scotland, Donald Dewar, in 1961 and the Observer Mace competition in 1962. In 1995, the Observer Mace was renamed the John Smith Memorial Mace in his honour.
Today, a bust of John sits at the entrance to the Glasgow University Union’s debating chamber. He is also represented on the University’s Memorial Gates in recognition of his contribution to Scotland’s political and cultural life.
John met his future wife, Elizabeth, while they were studying at the University of Glasgow. They were married in 1967.
Upon graduating in 1963 John worked as a solicitor and then as an advocate at the Scottish bar.
After standing unsuccessfully for Parliament at the 1961 and 1964 general elections, John was elected as the Labour Member of Parliament for the North Lanarkshire constituency in 1970. He served as MP for this constituency – and its successor Monklands East – until his death in 1994.
He held a number of posts in the Wilson and Callaghan administrations of the 1970s and played an important role in guiding the government’s devolution legislation through Parliament. He held the Cabinet position of Secretary of State for Trade from 1978 until 1979.
After Labour’s defeat at the 1979 election, John served in the Shadow Cabinet in a number of high-profile roles and held the position of Shadow Chancellor from 1987 until 1992. He was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1983.
Following Labour’s defeat at the 1992 general election, John stood successfully for the leadership of the party. He won with an unprecedented landslide of 91% of the vote. During his leadership, he committed the Labour Party to Scottish devolution, pledging that the next Labour government would establish a Scottish Parliament. Donald Dewar, John’s close friend and former debating partner, later played a crucial role in delivering devolution in 1999 and became the inaugural First Minister of Scotland.
John’s leadership of the Labour Party also coincided with the Labour Party gaining a significant and sustained lead in the opinion polls over the governing Conservative Party. It was widely predicted that the Labour Party, under John’s leadership, would win the next general election.
Tragically, John died in May 1994 at the age of 55. On the night before he died he delivered a speech in London which concluded with the words: “The opportunity to serve our country – that is all we ask.” It is these words, which encapsulate a lifetime’s commitment of seeking to help others through public service, that inspire the work of the John Smith Centre today.
(Above L-R: Sarah, John, Jane, Elizabeth and Catherine)
John’s wife, Elizabeth, was created Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill in 1995. She chose her parliamentary title of Gilmorehill, the site of the University of Glasgow, in recognition of the pivotal role the University played in their early life together, and how much the University and the University Union meant to John.
They have three daughters: Sarah, Jane and Catherine. Sarah is Scotland Editor at the BBC, Jane is a full time mother and personal trainer and Catherine is a practicing advocate and Chair of the John Smith Centre for Public Service.