Why Scots would do well to remember John Smith – and the fair and decent land that never was, writes George Kerevan
JOHN Smith, Labour leader and prime minister who never was, died 20 years ago next month, on 12 May, 1994. Like his political hero Hugh Gaitskell, Labour’s other lost leader, Smith’s demise at the comparatively early age of 55 was sudden, unexpected and shocking.
His departure from the political scene produced a rare wave of genuine sympathy from political opponents, as well as from friends and supporters. More significant still, the gap he left in Labour’s hierarchy would have a profound effect on the future of British politics and so on many lives, in Britain and in the Middle East.
I’ve been in and around Scottish politics all my life. What politicians say in public about other politicians is frequently very different from the bitchy or jealous views they express in private. Not so with regard to John Smith. Despite his position firmly on Labour’s traditional (ie, anti-communist) right wing, he was respected across the whole spectrum of the party’s membership. This was because he was a consistent social democrat and egalitarian who, for instance, sent his three daughters to a local Edinburgh state comprehensive.
Outside Labour circles, Smith was admired for his brains, his Scottish lawyer’s acerbic debating skills, and the fact that he treated political opponents as human beings to be convinced rather than excoriated. When Smith’s untimely death was announced to the Scottish Conservative Party conference then in session in Inverness, there was an impromptu minute’s silence. A visibly shaken Ian Lang, then the Tory Scottish Secretary, told the assembled press that Smith was “a fair, decent and good man”. What politician in 2014 will be called “good” by his political adversaries?
In May 1994, when Smith was struck down by a massive heart attack, the Conservative government led by John Major was in terminal meltdown. Britain had been forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) two years earlier, derailing Major’s economic strategy. Meanwhile, civil war had broken out in the Tory ranks over Europe. In the polls, Labour was a massive 23 points ahead of the Conservatives. In other words, had he lived, John Smith would certainly have become prime minister come the 1997 general election.
A Smith government would have been markedly different from what Britain enjoyed under the Punch and Judy show of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. On the domestic front, Smith would certainly have made Brown his chancellor, at least for his first administration: Brown was Smith’s protégé and political factotum. But the brooding Thane of Kirkcaldy would have remained under Smith’s tight leash. That might have spared us Brown’s kowtowing to the City and his catastrophic failure to regulate the banks.
In foreign affairs, it is safe to say that Smith would not have replicated Tony Blair’s ill-fated adventure in Iraq. While a convinced Atlanticist like Gaitskell, Smith’s innate prudence and respect for the rule of law would have prevented him joining in the Bush family crusade to overthrow Saddam. Largely forgotten, Smith had a keen interest in international institutions. In 1993, giving the Robert Kennedy Memorial Lecture, he advocated that the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council be extended to include Germany and Japan, and possibly India, Brazil and Nigeria. That does not sound like someone who would invade Iraq without UN Security Council approval.
I last talked with John Smith only a short time before his passing. Two years later I left the Labour Party and joined the SNP, feeling in my bones that Labour’s social democratic soul had been interred with him. I was not alone.
Of course, Smith believed in “modernising” Labour – he abolished the trade union block vote inside the party. But he would not have followed the Blairites who (effectively) transformed Labour into an American-style Democratic Party, dependent on business cash.
Where the ghost of John Smith did influence the next Labour government was in delivering a Scottish Parliament. In the 1970s, Smith failed to pilot the original Scottish Assembly Bill through Westminster because of opposition from Labour’s backwoodsmen. Bloodied but unbowed, he was the intellectual architect of the “front-loaded” referendum of 1997, which established popular support for devolution prior to legislation. Smith, not Donald Dewar, is the true father of Holyrood.
Of course, Smith had the faults of his era. He was perhaps too reluctant to inquire into the sectarian establishment in his Monklands constituency. Nor would his time as prime minister have been plain sailing. I suspect that arch-opportunist Tony Blair, in partnership with Peter Mandelson, would have plotted to oust Smith, claiming he was too old-fashioned and a roadblock to winning New Labour friends in aspirational Islington or London’s Docklands. John Smith would never have rigged the tax system to favour Russian oligarchs, or made students pay tuition fees.
Smith was not sympathetic to the SNP but he was very definitely a cultural nationalist. That unique cultural identification determined his politics, as it will the politics of an independent Scotland.
He went to Glasgow University in the days when every student had to study the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, especially Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. These sensibilities include “sympathy, empathy and solidarity” with the rest of the community. This is a far cry from the ethos of either New Labour or the coalition.
A pragmatic politician to his fingertips, Smith had a keen understanding of why Scotland failed to embrace devolution the first time round.
In an interview with the Bulletin of Scottish Politics in 1981, he reflected: “In Scotland people (including the middle class) always get annoyed by English superiority and dominance. Yet when presented [in 1978] with an instrument for doing something about it, as the Assembly began to materialise… it was astonishing how few interest groups were capable of saying to themselves that perhaps we, as a group, should take a small risk for the sake of the greater good, for the sake of the country.”
Scots should ponder John Smith’s wise words when they enter the voting booth next September.