Mike Elrick : John Smith - Scotland’s lost leader

LABOUR should invoke the memory of John Smith in the battle to save the UK, says the former Labour leader’s press officer Mike Elrick

LABOUR should invoke the memory of John Smith in the battle to save the UK, says the former Labour leader’s press officer Mike Elrick

IT IS 20 years since Labour leader John Smith died.

Two decades since Saltires and Union flags flew at half-mast across the country as a mark of respect, and people the length and breadth of the United Kingdom united in grief at the loss of a politician at the top of his game, destined to become prime minister.

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The political life of the United Kingdom stopped on 12 May, 1994, when news of his death was announced.

It’s hard to believe that the sudden death of any contemporary political leader would elicit the same kind ofpublic reaction today.

I knew John Smith the politician and the man better than most, albeit for a short time. For the two years he served as Labour Party leader before his untimely death, I was fortunate to work for the Monklands East MP as a junior press officer.

I travelled the country with him and saw Smith engage with the public and his fellow politicians. I carried his bag, wiped stains off his tie, observed his fascination with railway timetables, drank late night whisky nightcaps with himafter a long day campaigning and shared a love of the Scottish hills. Working for him was a privilege and an education.

It is the mark of the man and the impression he left behind that, even after 20 years, when his name comes up in conversation, people, many with no interest in politics or of a different political persuasion, say unprompted, he was a “good man” and the “best prime minister we never had”.

In the years that have passed since his death, much has changed; trust in politics and politicians has plummeted, and with the looming independence referendum, we stand on the edge of an uncertain future.

I have pondered why his passingaffected the public in such a unique way and why he is remembered fondly even now.

Undoubtedly, the shock and sudden nature of his death was a factor. There was an expectation that Smith would win a general election and lead Labour back to government after more than a decade in opposition. His death at the ridiculously early age of 55 robbed the country of that prospect.

But I think there is more to it than that.

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John had authenticity. He was grounded. A loving family man, modest, unassuming, but hugely capable and devastatingly formidable in debate. The public could see he was an able and dedicated parliamentarian with a sharp, confident mind who knew where he was going. They trusted him andbelieved that he was a prime minister in waiting.

He was undoubtedly a politician of the old school and none the worse for that. Triumphantly unfashionable he may have been, caricatured as a staid, slightly boring Scottish bank manager, in the days when such a comparison did not conjure up images of recklessness.

But that view of him couldn’t have been wider of the mark.

Though he claimed that “we weren’t put on this earth to enjoy ourselves”, he had a funny way of showing it.

This, after all, was the man who chose a crate of champagne as his luxury on Desert Island Discs, and who I can still see clearly in my mind’s eye laughing like a drain while reading Neil Munro’s Para Handy Tales to himself. Remembering no doubt his own youthful days as a cook on a Clyde puffer.

John never took himself too seriously, which is good sign in any politician, and in private conservation was a mine of jokes and stories picked up from his days as a jobbing barrister.

He used to enjoy telling a story against himself about how he once drove his clapped-out Rover, with clouds of smoke coming from his exhaust, to a Lanarkshire petrol station. The attendant watched him closely and when it came to pay for his petrol asked Smith if anyone had ever told him he looked like “that politician John Smith”. When John replied that he was the very same John Smith, the attendant said, “I thought it was you, but I didnae think you would be driving such an old banger”.

In the days before 24/7 broadcast news cycles, social media and policy set by focus group and opinion polling, John was his own man. He trusted his own judgment and was consistent throughout his political career in arguing for what he believed in, be it Britain’s place in Europe, the need for devolution or the importance of the fight for social justice and the need for redistribution of opportunity and wealth in society.

He didn’t study the morning’s news-paper headlines, pander to the news agenda or take media criticism to heart. He just got on with his job and argued his case.

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He could be tetchy on occasion and was capable of reducing at least one member of his shadow cabinet to tears, but given the pressures of his jobperhaps this was unsurprising.

I remember when colleagues cajoled him into watching focus group sessions in a housing estate in deepest, darkest Essex. If the intention was to show Smith how Essex man and woman really thought on the important issues of the day, it backfired spectacularly. John sat there listening to the groups behind a glass screen, increasingly exasperated by some of the rather extreme opinions that were expressed by focus group members. I could tell he was angry by the number of peanuts he failed to get into his mouth, which ended up scattered round his chair.

His politics were not led by what he would hear from a focus group or what pollsters or sharp-suited advisers told him to say. Smith’s politics were based on persuasion and taking people with him by force of argument. He was a conviction politician to his fingertips and he had integrity in spades.

His politics were based on consistency of outlook rather than the vagaries of political fashion or style over substance.

No surprise then that he was no fan of either Peter Mandelson or Labour’s polling guru, the late Philip Gould. Their world and their outlook was not his.

Smith was not a divisive politician – he had friends across all the political parties, and having worked for Michael Foot, Tony Benn and Neil Kinnock, he had an astonishing ability to work closely with colleagues with widely disparate political viewpoints.

He may have disagreed with left-wing colleagues, but he respected their right to hold their opinion and that respect was reciprocated. They knew his loyalty to the Labour Party was never in question.

On a long car journey back to Edinburgh, I once asked him why he was a politician and why he had stayed the course. After all, given his background as a barrister he could easily have left politics and returned to a lucrativecareer at the Bar in the wake of Labour’s internal battles in the late Seventies and early Eighties.

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His reply was short and to the point. He said he had constituents who needed him to fight their corner and he had no intention of letting them down.

On a wet Saturday in Airdrie after his MP’s surgery, I saw John at his happiest as a politician, meeting a grateful constituent who had previously had a state benefit stopped, but who had had it reinstated after a stern letter from the MP.

Critics forget that Smith was a radical, despite all appearances to the contrary, and his vision has shaped the constitutional landscape of the country we now live in.

In a remarkably prescient 1992 speech at Strathclyde University he questioned the nature of British democracy, warning that people were losing faith in the democratic process; arguing government had become remote and overly centralised.

He objected to the clawing of power back to the centre, the stifling of voices of dissent and the closing down of channels of open and accountable government.

He argued that democracy needed reform and the process of centralisation needed to be reversed and he wanted to restore people’s faith in their system of government.

Key to that reform was, he believed, the conscious devolution of power to the nations and regions of the UK, and the first step was the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, effectively committing the Labour Party to establish that parliament as the “settled will” of the Scottish people.

Smith was a convert to devolution in the Seventies, not because he saw it as a means of killing “nationalism stone dead” or to buy time for a Labour government, but because he saw it as a means of addressing a democratic deficit, bringing politicians closer to the people and making them more accountable for their actions.

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While administrative powers were increasingly ceded by Whitehall to the Scottish Office, answerable only to the secretary of state, there was no corresponding devolution of political control over Scottish affairs to the Scottish people over areas of policy that had a direct impact on the lives of Scots. That had to change.

A Scottish Parliament, he believed, was essential to the democratic governance of “our nation”, by which he meant the United Kingdom not just Scotland and in Smith’s view “unfinished business”. Devolution was in the interests of the UK, not just Scotland, and a key part of the democratic renewal of the British constitution and its civil institutions.

It would be a parliament to legislate on matters unique to Scotland but with a government in Westminster to address the wider concerns of the UK as a whole. He never saw its establishment as a stepping stone to independence. Nor was it an end in itself but a means by which the better government of the UK might be achieved.

Given his role along with Donald Dewar as one of the chief architects of “home rule”, it is perhaps ironic that both have been virtually airbrushed out of the current constitutional debate over Scotland’s future – and even the parliament they fought so hard to set up.

Unless on a guided tour of the Holyrood parliament, a visitor, would struggle to find any recognition of Smith and Dewar in the parliament building. Whether by accident or design, the bust of Smith and portrait of Dewar are tucked well away from the public concourse, outside the MSPs’ restaurant, at the top of the garden lobby steps. Given their contribution to devolution and to the parliament that is unfortunate.

John would be 75 now, had he lived.

I have no doubt he would have won a general election against John Major’s scandal-ridden Conservative Party, and that under him, a Labour government would have put social justice and opportunity for all at the heart of all it did. It would have been an unashamedly redistributive administration and it’s unlikely he would have involved the UK in any overseas military conflicts. Instead, the UK would have been much closer to mainland Europe in outlook.

As author Brian Brivati said in his collection of Smith’s speeches Guiding Light, Smith was “a Scottish politician who was capable of being leader of a United Kingdom in a way that none of his contemporaries could match”. He was a “European statesman who understood the centrality of the European vision for the economic and social future of Britain”.

What would Smith have thought about the current state of Scottish politics with an impending independence referendum on Scotland’s place in the UK?

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I think he would have been concerned by the centralising instincts and actions of the current Scottish Government and been dismayed by the SNP’s attempt to hijack the Scottish Parliament for their own purposes, as a vehicle primarily to promote independence.

No doubt, too, he would have been scornful of the Scottish Government’s blasé attitude to Freedom of Information requests. I can imagine what he would have made of the First Minister’s evasiveness over overseas hotel bills, the cost of a pair of tartan trews and non-existent EU legal advice.

And perhaps he would have ridiculed the apparent willingness of the SNP to happily cede authority to the EU while being unwilling to cede anything to Westminster after independence.Of course, we will never know. But on one thing we can be reasonably sure, he would have been passionate about the devolution settlement he worked so hard to establish and Scotland’s continued place in the United Kingdom.

He believed in the continuity of the UK and stated publicly he could think of no more “spectacular folly than to sunder the Union”.

I have no doubt that if he were still with us, his lawyer’s forensic skills would have been to the fore in examination of the Nationalist case for independence, which he would have found wanting, and in strong defence of the devolution settlement, and as result, Scotland’s place in the Union would have been stronger and more secure.

At the end of the day he would have repeated the mantra, “trust the people”.

In coming months Scottish Labour defenders of the Union could do worse than remind the public what John Smith stood for and why what he believed still matters in 2014.

He is worthy of more than footnote in the history of British and Labour politics. Twenty years after his death, I miss him hugely and wish he were here to participate in the current debate on Scotland’s future. «

Mike Elrick was press officer to Labour leader John Smith