John Smith 25 years on
25 years since the death of John Smith, Alastair Osborne strips the myths from the man and remembers the reality of his contribution, the pain of his loss, and the debt owed to him by the Labour movement.
I can hardly believe that it’s 25 years since the death of John Smith. The passing of time leads Adam Boulton to reflect in his piece for the Sky News website, ‘the name John Smith doesn’t mean much to anyone under 40 today. I know, I’ve tried it on friends and family. Some sort of beer’.
Amongst the many fine tributes to mark the 20th anniversary of John Smith’s death five years ago were a few that confused the myth with the man. Remember this was at the very height of the independence referendum campaign. The most ludicrous was a comment left on the Daily Record website that ‘if John Smith were alive today he would be supporting a Yes vote’. If we were to believe the nationalists then everyone from Robert Burns to Keir Hardie to John Smith would have beeen voting Yes.
Another myth was the romantic notion that John Smith represented a lost Labour Party of the left. That seems almost funny now with the Party firmly in the grip of the Corbynistas. Back in the 1980s people like John Smith were viewed as being on the right of the Labour Party. Those of us on the left then thought we had all the answers when we only had some of them. Even the image of John Smith, the Presbyterian ‘bank manager’ figure, was well wide of the mark. As Donald Dewar once said, ‘he could start a party in an empty room.’
Stripping away the myths, we can remember the loss of someone who would have made a great Labour Prime Minister. Had he lived, he would have had the credibility to modernise the party, preserve its unity and help build a fairer society. We wouldn’t have had Blairism or the Third Way, and could you even imagine him being best pals with George W Bush. The words ‘Corbyn’ and ‘Brexit’ might never have found their way into any newspaper headline.
When he called devolution ‘unfinished business’ and ‘the settled will of the Scottish people’ he didn’t speak as someone from the ‘neo-nationalist’ wing of the Scottish Labour Party. His support for devolution was measured but absolute. He was determined to see it used for a purpose – to make Scotland a better, more socially just country (compare and contrast!). He had no time for nationalism and refused to concede Scottish identity or patriotism to the nationalists.
Debating devolution back in 1976 he said, ‘I speak as a Scot myself, representing a Scottish constituency, born and brought up in Scotland, living and wishing to continue living in Scotland, a member of a Scots profession, with children at Scottish schools, and having roots too deep in Scotland ever to wish to sever them. I think I am as entitled as any separatists to speak for my fellow countrymen.’
When I was standing in Ayr at the 1992 General Election, he came to lend his support and open our new party rooms at Damside. The media took their pictures of the candidate flanked by the then Shadow Chancellor, John Smith and our Euro MEP, Campaign Group member, Alex Smith. Someone shouted ‘Smith for Leader’ – Alex quipped ‘which one?’ He was to become Leader (John that is) but sadly not Prime Minister.
But for me the enduring memory and lasting legacy of John Smith was his commission on social justice (Social Justice – Strategies for National Renewal). Set up in the wake of the 1992 general election defeat, it was to be ‘a new Beveridge’ carrying out an independent inquiry into social and economic reform. Its mission was to ‘develop a practical vision of economic and social reform for the 21st century’ and it formed the basis of the best of Labour’s social reforms post 1997.
In a moment of weakness I gave away my prized copy to an arrogant young ‘wannabe’ Labour politico who had just told me he didn’t rate this ‘social justice thing’. I thought it might do him some good but I suspect he’s probably in the Tory Party now. I wish he would just send it back.