Remembering legendary Labour leader John Smith 25 years on from his tragic death

On 12 May 1994 Labour leader John Smith died aged 55.
On 12 May 1994 Labour leader John Smith died aged 55.
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THE death of Labour leader John Smith 25 years ago this week stunned not just his family, friends and colleagues but also the country at large.

He was an able and experienced politician who commanded respect across the spectrum as a man of integrity and principle – and he seemed destined to become the UK’s next Prime Minister.

His sudden and tragic passing came two years after the Tories under John Major had won a surprise general election victory, prompting Neil Kinnock’s resignation as Labour leader and Mr Smith’s near-unanimous election as his successor.

Since then the Tories, divided and squabbling over Europe, had been forced into effective devaluation of the pound on “Black Wednesday”, Labour was comfortably ahead in the polls and looked a safe bet to win power at the next election.

But soon after 8am on May 12, 1994 Mr Smith suffered a massive heart attack at his flat in London’s Barbican as he was preparing to leave on a campaigning trip to Basildon. He was rushed to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, but despite the best efforts of doctors he was pronounced dead at 9.15am.

He was 55.

Tributes poured in. Edinburgh Central MP Alistair Darling described him as “one of the kindest and most decent men in the House of Commons” and said his death was a “tragic loss for British politics.

“He was universally respected and admired – more than any other politician in the Commons.”

Malcolm Chisholm, MP for Leith, said Mr Smith had been a unifying influence, popular across the party and would have been “the best Prime Minister since Attlee”.

Neil Kinnock praised him as “a man of supreme abilities with a fierce commitment to social justice.”

The Scottish Tories, who were holding their party conference in Inverness, suspended business for the morning as a mark of respect.

The then Scottish Secretary Ian Lang praised “a fine parliamentarian, a fair decent and good man and a great patriot who loved Scotland and democracy”.

Although he was MP for Monklands East, previously named North Lanarkshire, Mr Smith lived in Morningside with his family and had worked as a lawyer in Edinburgh before being elected to Westminster.

On the Sunday before he died he had been, as usual, to the morning service at Cluny Parish Church, just round the corner from his home. On Monday night he had proposed Lothians MEP David Martin for re-election at a meeting at Lothian Regional Council chambers.

Eric Milligan, then convener of Lothian Region and later to become Lord Provost, said the country had been “cheated” of the chance to be led by someone of such principle and integrity as John Smith.

“He would as surely as night follows day have taken the very important step from Leader of the Opposition to Prime Minister at the next general election. I believe it is tragic for our country that chance has now gone.

“It was a great thing for us that the leader of the Labour Party lived in Edinburgh and was part of our local political scene and for that reason the loss is all the greater.”

And the then Lothian Labour group leader Keith Geddes said: “John Smith took time out to help us here with our work and our campaigning. He would have made a tremendous Prime Minister.”

Mr Smith had suffered a serious heart attack six years earlier and was off work for three months, but fought his way back to health with a strict diet and a new hobby of hillwalking. He lost three stones before returning to the political fray.

He made his name as a cool and effective Shadow Chancellor, working alongside Neil Kinnock. Some commentators criticised his low-key style as leader but other insisted he was playing “the long game” and preparing carefully for a successful campaign at the next election.

Born in Argyll in 1938, the son of a schoolteacher, he was educated at Dunoon Grammar School and went on to Glasgow University, where he trained as a lawyer.

His first attempt at parliament came at a by-election in East Fife in 1961.

He was called to the Bar in 1967 and worked as a lawyer in Edinburgh until being elected an MP in 1970.

After Labour came to power in 1974, he served at the Department of Energy and as Scotland’s Devolution Minister – the reason he described delivery of a Scottish Parliament as “unfinished business” – before being appointed Trade Secretary, becoming the youngest member of Jim Callaghan’s Cabinet at the age of 40.

When his funeral was held in the Capital on May 20, just over a week after his death, thousands thronged the streets to pay their last respects.

There was tight security as Prime Minister John Major, senior European politicians and a panoply of MPs from all parties came to Morningside to pay tribute.

Mr Smith’s widow Elizabeth and daughters Sarah, Jane and Catherine had turned down suggestions of a service at St Giles’ Cathedral in favour of holding the funeral at their own church, led by their own minister, the Rev George Munro.

Donald Dewar, a long-standing friend and colleague, gave an appreciation, saying Mr Smith had been true to his principles throughout his life. “He was not interested in the trappings of power. He wanted power because of what it would allow him to do for others.”

The following day the family held a private burial on the island of Iona, the final resting place of many Scottish kings.

The Labour crown would soon pass to Tony Blair, Shadow Home Secretary at the time of Mr Smith’s death. He and Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, had immediately been identified as the two most likely to take over as leader.

Mr Blair famously went on to rebrand the party as “New Labour” and end 18 years of Tory rule with a landslide victory in 1997.

But few doubt Mr Smith would have won that election too if he had lived. No-one will ever know how different a path the country might have followed under Prime Minister Smith.