John Smith Remembered 

John Smith was one of the foremost parliamentarians of his time. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1970 and over the next 24 years served as a Minster and member of the Cabinet. In July 1992 he was elected Leader of the Labour Party and was very likely to become Britain’s next prime minister. His untimely death in May 1994 was a grievous loss to the British people.  Today he is often recalled as the “best PM we never had” and with affection by many people regardless of their political views. He was admired as a politician that could be trusted and clearly motivated by strong ethical values and democratic beliefs. Whilst the passage of time inevitably distances us from Smith’s period in office, his achievements still have a large impact on our public life.   

I was privileged to work for John Smith from 1988 to 1994 during which time he was Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the Opposition. I saw at first had his passionate determination to win public office for a purpose; to build a Britain that is prosperous, fairer, and better governed in the interests of all. Smith’s ambition was to lead a country that would “harness the extraordinary potential of ordinary people” [1]. He was inspired by a vision of active government and democratic citizenship; and opposed to a society dominated by entitled elites or opaque market forces.  

That is what shapes his legacy today. His deep commitment to social justice saw him champion the creation of a national minimum wage which was enacted by the Labour Government elected in 1997; his desire for transparency in the corridors of power resulted in the adoption of the Freedom of Information Act; and his determination to bring democracy close to people helped to secure devolution in Wales and Scotland.  All of these lasting legislative landmarks of the 1997 Labour Government carry the hallmarks of John Smith’s influence and leadership.  

Smith was a man of supreme self-confidence. He was sure in his beliefs – informed by a Presbyterian faith, and imbued by an upbringing in Scotland’s Western Highlands – and blessed with a loving and devoted family. In short he was very secure in himself and that was strongly felt in his politics. The essential integrity of Smith’s approach was reinforced by skills as a criminal barrister. He would explore policy options in detail and if he judged them to be sound he was a completely convincing advocate.  

These forensic skills were combined with great natural wit and debating prowess that made him a master of the House of Commons chamber. Smith often used humour to devastating effect in Parliament. A classic example was a in 1989, when Smith sought to exploit major differences on economic policy between then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chancellor Nigel Lawson. With Number 10 and 11 at loggerheads, Smith mocked them by singing the theme song to ‘Neighbours’ [2]. The former Conservative leader William Hague recently admitted that Smith was so funny he had “our own side cracking up when we weren’t supposed to” [3] 

Smith’s leadership has sometimes been described as cautious and even old fashioned. I think this is wrong [4]. Smith was cat-like, capable of bold jumps but wanting to be sure of his footing. For example, Smith’s proposals for constitutional and democratic reform in 1993 set out the most radical and comprehensive made by any Labour Leader. Smith was concerned that Britain was becoming an elective dictatorship and argued that “we must replace the out-of-date idea of an all-powerful nation state with a new and dynamic framework of government” [5]  

He wanted Britain to become a modern European state which empowered “municipal, regional, national and European decision-making”. This agenda of democratic reform and modernisation is just as relevant today. Smith was an intensely proud Scot, but also British and European. He wanted our democratic life to encompass all these multiple identities seeing them as further opportunities to build a fairer and more prosperous life for us all. That was why he was always strongly committed to Britain’s joining the original Common Market – now European Union – and, I’m sure, would have strongly opposed Brexit.    

In a short article such as this it is impossible to convey the personality and warmth of John Smith. Nor is there space for me to share the anecdotes and experiences of working for such a remarkable man. The best I can recommend to all followers of the John Smith Centre is to listen to his own words in the unusual and informal setting of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs dating from May 1991 [6]. He charmingly talks about his personal life, his principled approach to politics, and at the end his taste for champagne!     

 

David Ward served as Rt Hon John Smith QC’s Head of Policy when Leader of the Opposition (1992-1994) and previously as Advisor when John Smith was Shadow Chancellor (1988-1992) 

[1] This quote, a favorite of John Smith’s, was from RH Tawney included in Smith’s RH Tawney Memorial Lecture, 20th March 1993  

[2] HC Deb vol 154 7th June 1989, Government Economic Policy column 249 

[3] The Rest Is Politics: William Hague on Boris Johnson, Blair, and Brexit on Apple Podcasts 

[4] See my Mile End Institute paper: John Smith and the mythology of ‘One More Heave’ – Mile End Institute (qmul.ac.uk) 

[5] Charter 88 speech delivered in Central Hall Westminster on 1st March 1993 

[6] BBC Radio 4 – Desert Island Discs, Rt Hon John Smith