John Smith: Labour’s Past, Labour’s Future

4th January 2011 Published in GUU’s Magazine


On the 4th of February we remember John Smith – former leader of the Labour Party.  In testimony to his time at the GUU, the union chamber shall welcome a host of political speakers to contest the motion: This House Believes Labour Is Still Best For Britain.  A generation after Smith’s death, Labour’s modern legacy is largely the result of those who followed him – Blair, Brown and Mandelson.  Yet many of the last Government’s foundations were set in motion by Smith: from tax policy to devolution. It is this legacy, and Labour’s future, that shall be contested across the Glasgow dispatch box.  This year’s guest speakers include our beloved rector Charles Kennedy – who led the Liberal Democrats in 2005 to what remains their most successful election result – and Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland Ann McKechin, MP for Glasgow North.

Such debates featured prominently in the early life of John Smith.  Originally from Ardrishaig in Mid Argyll, Smith gained notoriety through his GUU debating prowess.  Decades later his wisdom and wit held John Major to the proverbial ropes, as Labour soared to a 20 point poll lead over the fag end of the divided Thatcherite Government.  John Smith was renowned for his Parliamentary style and skill.  He had the ability to entertain and engage.   As the pound crashed in ’92, Major was cast as “The devalued Prime Minister of a devalued Government.”  As recession struck, Smith stated that Major would be faced with the cinematic tragedy of “Honey, I shrank the economy!” when facing the electorate.

However, with the shock of Smith’s heart attack, political theatre stopped.  British public life stood still to remember John Smith’s greater features: how he conducted himself with dignity and universal respect for his peers; his values, faith and sense of social justice; and the loving family and community he left behind.  As the news became public, statements of condolence came from across the political spectrum.   ‘The Best Prime Minister We Never Had’ was his epitaph.  After Blair, Iraq, and the recent political turbulence of expenses and protest, politicians rarely receive the same admiration and respect.  Yet rarely are politicians the same as John Smith.

The story of a principled and respected Scottish politician dying early and suddenly is sadly not an isolated one.   The ten years which witnessed the passing of Donald Dewar, Robin Cook and John Smith left behind a void in the Scottish Labour Party which has yet to be filled.  Their political careers shaped Scotland and Britain.  Whether there would be a Scottish Parliament without Smith and Dewar’s convictions is doubtful: they committed Blair’s support.  The Scottish Parliament therefore forms part of Smith’s lasting legacy.

So does New Labour, although more uncomfortably.  Years after Smith’s death – as dissatisfaction towards Blair’s leadership increased – romanticism grew around the memory of his leadership.  Figures on the Labour left, such as Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone, viewed the loss of John Smith as the loss of Labour’s spirit – the moment when its credentials as a radical, socially democratic Government was lost to Blarites.  As Smith was set to inherit a strong majority in ’97 the urge for counter-factual history has been strong for some.  It is true that Britain would have been different place, but not remarkably so.  John Smith was principled – but he was always a centrist reformer.  He continued the Labour re-branding that Neil Kinnock began and that Blair & Brown escalated after his passing.  John Smith was more Hugh Gaitskell than he ever was Aneurin Bevan.

However, where history will forever freeze is over Iraq.  The war is Labour’s legacy, but Blair’s legacy also.  Whether John Smith would have supported the invasion and the resulting occupation remains an unanswerable question: a political butterfly effect of what could have, would have, may have changed.  We will never know.  Only Blair can fully discern what thoughts flew through his own mind as he convinced Parliament that Saddam, and his non-existant WMD, were an imminent threat.  Smith, as a different man, may well have thought differently, and as a result averted the greatest British foreign policy disaster since Suez.  In doing so he would have changed the Middle East, the British Military and the Labour Party.   Any reluctance towards involvement in American led conflicts would have profoundly changed Britain’s position on the world stage.  Now, in 2011, British troops patrol Afghan streets for their eleventh year and Iran is constructed as the new, great, imminent threat.  “What if John Smith was here and had been Prime Minister?” is the question of those who wish for another history, a history that never was and was lost.

Back on the ground, in the Glaswegian bars and libraries of Smith’s student life, Labour’s future is local.  Old concerns – such as Westminster foreign policy – hang as shadows over next May’s Scottish elections.  A generation on, seventeen years after Smith’s death, Labour is attempting to return to office without the leaders who lay Holyrood’s foundations. Without Dewar, Cook and Smith, and now without Brown as a prominent Scottish leader, there is a generational void – as if Labour stood still in their absence.   In the debate over Labour’s future, their modern absence echoes in a telling and lasting silence.   Will Scottish Labour ever reclaim its stature, charisma and ideals?  As the traditional voice of the left wing, and as the last credible defender of the union, Scottish Labour faces a juncture in its history.  Whether it retreats further from radicalism and respect towards loss and lethargy is yet to be seen.   However, in a political sense – as the Westminster juggernaut smashes onwards, unabated by social concerns – something, yet perhaps not Labour, will step into that void.

On the 4th of February the Smith memorial debate is one equally about John Smith’s past as it is about this nation’s common future.  In losing a servant of the public good so early in life, Scotland lost the compassion of a talented citizen.   On the night before his death John Smith spoke at a dinner event in London: “The opportunity to serve our country”, he said, “that is all we ask.”

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