Ian Murray – 2019 Speech on 25th Anniversary of John Smith’s Death

Below is the text of the speech made by Ian Murray, the Labour MP for Edinburgh South, in the House of Commons on 9 May 2019.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the 25th anniversary of the death of John Smith, former leader of the Labour Party.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting Chamber time for this special debate on a motion in my name and in the names of right hon. and hon. Friends across the House. The 25th anniversary of John Smith’s untimely passing is a fitting occasion to commemorate and remember a man who lit up this place, lit up our politics and lit up the lives of so many. I am sure that many hon. Members across the House will wish to share their stories and memories today.

This Sunday will mark the 25th anniversary of John Smith’s death. When I suggested this debate to his wife, Baroness Elizabeth Smith, I was not expecting a response from so many colleagues wanting to contribute or merely tell me their own stories about John. Many MPs, from all parties, have come up to me and said, “I can’t be at the debate, but let me tell you about the time—” or “I know where I was the heard the news that John had died.” After 25 years, that is a measure of the man himself: he was admired and respected across the House.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Many of us have memories of John Smith. I remember that when I was a London taxi driver, there was a memorial service to him in Methodist Central Hall, just across Parliament Square. I could not finish the day without parking up and going inside to join in. He was a remarkable speaker—a magnificent orator, whom I managed to hear on several occasions. In my opinion, he will go down as one of the parliamentarians who can be described as a great Prime Minister that this country never had.

Ian Murray

I hope that when my hon. Friend went into the memorial service, he stopped his meter—I know that John, as a traditional Scot, might not have done so.

Some of the stories about John can be repeated in public, but—with his wonderful wit and Scottish humour—there are some that are perhaps best not written into Hansard. I do not think that anybody would contradict the assertion that he was the best Prime Minister that this country never had. As a young Andrew Marr wrote:

“The greatest political tribute to John Smith is the simplest one: had he lived, he would have become Prime Minister.”

It is no exaggeration to suggest that his passing changed the course of British history. He was referred to as “Labour’s lost leader”, the man who made the Labour party electable again.

As well as being a formidable and committed politician of extreme intellect, transparency, decency and straightforwardness, with a sense of fairness and a willingness to fight for those who were not able to speak up for themselves, John Smith was a committed family man, with his wife Elizabeth, whom he met at Glasgow University, and his three daughters, Sarah, Jane and Catherine. The country may have lost a Prime Minister in waiting, but they suffered the heaviest and most ​heartbreaking loss of all—the loss of a husband, a father and a part of their lives that could never be replaced.

Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)

When I heard of the death of John Smith, I was at the Scottish Tory conference—as a journalist, I should point out, not as a member of the Tory party. I remember that the whole conference came to a grinding halt. Everyone there was stunned and greatly saddened. I thought that that reflected very well on John Smith, and, in fairness, extremely well on the Tory party.

Ian Murray

I shall come to that later in my speech. Journalists get all the best gigs, I am sure—such as the Tory party conference.

I was saying that John Smith’s family had suffered the most heartbreaking loss of all—the loss of a husband, a father and a part of their lives that could never be replaced. I feel that acutely, because I lost my own father at a young age. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in wishing my own mum, Lena, a happy 70th birthday for yesterday. The Labour Party would have a new leader to replace John and the country would have that Labour Prime Minister whom it so desired, but it is not possible to replace a father and husband.

I never met John personally, but I feel, as others will surely feel today, that he was always part of my political life. His family still live in my constituency, and constituents often stop me in the street and get on to the topic of John. He was one of theirs, and they are not going to let people forget that any time soon. They all recall his funeral service at Cluny parish church in Morningside. The building sits on a small embankment close to where John lived. The film footage shows the red brick punctuated by the black of mourners moving slowly and sombrely past into the church. The deep national shock was there for all to see.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) cannot be here today owing to a long-standing engagement in her constituency. She was John’s deputy, the politician who took over the reins of the Labour party and the person who had the most difficult job in the House, that of leading the tributes to John when he died. She did it brilliantly and with her usual grace, clarity and kindness. She was devastated that she could not be here today, so she asked if I would read out something on her behalf, and I am very proud to do so:

“25 years ago, the profound shock of John Smith’s untimely death was felt across the country and this House, which only convened for tributes to be paid, led by the then Prime Minister, John Major, before adjourning.

It was also the Scottish Conservative party’s annual conference”

—as we have heard—and

“Ian Lang, the Secretary of State, announced the news and adjourned the conference immediately.

In the Labour party and wider Labour movement the sorrow was profound. I recall a senior trade unionist telling me that he was listening to the tributes in his car, and found himself crying so much that he had to pull over and stop the car.

Party leaders, presidents and prime ministers from across Europe demanded to be allowed to come to the funeral and pay their respects. None were officially invited but they all came anyway at what ended up as almost a state funeral. Yet, in the end, ​it was not a sombre occasion—appropriately, because John was not a sombre man. It was his lifelong friend Donald Dewar who said in his address, ‘John could start a party in an empty room—and frequently did.’

Yet his outstanding characteristic was his determination to, as he put it, ‘speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves.’”

I do not really want to do a biography of John, but his character was undoubtedly shaped by his upbringing and early life. John was of radical Presbyterian stock, born on the west coast of Scotland on 13 September 1938. “John Smith”, he once said “is the commonest name in Scotland. A robust character is needed to overcome that.” His grandfather was a herring fisherman, and his father was the schoolmaster at the local village school.

At 14, John attended the grammar school at Dunoon. He was academically very successful and began to organise on behalf of his beloved Labour party. From school, he went to Glasgow University, where he cut his teeth, sharpened his elbows and honed the skills that would take him to the Bar and then to the Dispatch Box. He remained at university for seven years, reading for degrees first in history and then in law. He became a first-class debater, as many of the Glasgow university alumni at that time did, helping his university side win the Observer mace competition, but his greatest passion lay in politics.

At just 21, he was adopted Labour candidate for East Fife, which he fought unsuccessfully, and, despite another couple of failed attempts, became the MP for North Lanarkshire in 1970. Legend has it that he won enough money on predicting the results of the 1966 general election in Scotland to be able to quit being a solicitor and train for the Bar; I am not sure whether that is true.

As a new MP in this House in 1970, it was said that he ruined his chances of early promotion by defying his Whip and voting for entry into the EEC in 1971; I certainly know what defying my party Whip on Europe feels like so can concur with that. He remained a staunch pro-European and internationalist his entire career. Breaking the Whip must have been difficult for John, because he was a party man and believed in discipline, which would prove to be useful in his later political career, but he also believed in the common market and working together, and history repeats itself all too often in this place.

John had a glittering parliamentary governmental career as a Minister in employment, trade and energy until the long 18 years of Labour in opposition. He was shadow Chancellor from 1987 until he became Leader of the Opposition, following the 1992 general election and the resignation of Lord Kinnock. But despite his glittering parliamentary career, John always put his constituents first. Mike Elrick, who worked for John, said that John always emphasised that he had constituents who needed him to fight their corner and he had no intention of letting them down.

The people who knew him best were the wonderful people who worked for him, such as David Ward who is here today. I asked David what it was like to work for him and he had story after story of what a pleasure and how much fun it was. As almost every tribute has mentioned and will mention, he was a witty man, with a warmth and kindness. But David tells a story, published in Mark Stuart’s book “John Smith: A Life”, that emphasises John’s devastating humour, which was used to deadly effect in parliamentary debates. John was a ​brilliant debater capable of superb one-line put-downs to Conservative MPs brave enough to intervene on him. When John was on full song, he relished the chance to cut his opponents to size. Such was his fearsome reputation that it became obvious that Tory Whips were discouraging their MPs from interrupting him in debates. In response, Labour Back Benchers used to taunt the Tories to stand up.

John was spontaneously quick-witted but he also worked very hard at jokes prepared in advance. A great example is the “Neighbours” skewering of Nigel Lawson in this Chamber in June 1989, when Lawson was Chancellor, over the role of Margaret Thatcher’s economic adviser Sir Alan Walters. Lawson and Walters were at loggerheads over Tory policy on Europe—that sounds familiar—and that was causing huge friction between No. 10 and No. 11, which is also hugely familiar. In opening an Opposition debate, John sang a brief section from the theme tune from the television programme “Neighbours”, playing on these tensions; I am not going to sing it this afternoon. This hilarious mocking of the Chancellor culminated in John calling on him to go “before he was pushed”, and 24 hours later the Chancellor resigned.

David Ward said that they were working on the speech the day before the debate and, while John and David were drafting the text, another member of the team, Ann Barrett, was watching the BBC to make sure John got the lyrics to the theme tune right. After that, they seemingly rehearsed the theme song with everyone singing along late into the evening. David said he was worried that anyone wandering past the leader’s office would have been forgiven for thinking everyone had gone stark raving mad.

But I wonder what John Smith would have made of today’s greatest issue, Brexit. Today is Europe Day, and he was a great internationalist. For one, he would not have gambled on calling a referendum and he would have challenged the constant downplaying of the importance of the UK as an integral member of the EU. What would John have thought of the Brexit shambles engulfing and paralysing our politics? It is worth examining what he would have done, and David Ward looks at this in an article published in today’s New European. We know that John voted to go into the EU. He fundamentally believed that giving up some national sovereignty to gain some sovereignty back would allow a great degree of control over the international companies and the global issues of the future. Working together was the only way to solve the global problems.

And here is a greater lesson for Europe now: the way John Smith handled the tricky problem of Europe. Instead of a leader trying to force his opinion on the party—history may be repeating itself in the Labour party today—he asked the party to force its view on the leadership. There are important lessons to learn from his handling of the European issue during his all-too-brief tenure as Labour leader. The party could have been equally as divided as the Conservatives. Dissidents led by former Cabinet Minister Peter Shore—including a notably serial rebellious Back Bencher and challenger to his leadership, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the current Leader of the Opposition—were irreconcilably opposed to Britain’s membership of the European Union, but John minimised ​internal dispute by taking the unprecedented step of allowing the parliamentary Labour Party, rather than the shadow Cabinet, to determine its policy on Maastricht ahead of crucial votes.

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate and for the way in which he is presenting his arguments in favour of John Smith. I should like to take him back to the way in which John Smith conducted himself in the Chamber. Although he was robust in his parliamentary style, he was always respectful. This reminds me of a conversation I had with Jimmy Gordon—now Lord Gordon—who said that it was because of the respect John Smith had for others that he had not come across one person with a bad word to say about him. Would the hon. Gentleman like to reflect on that?

Ian Murray

That was a super intervention. I think that that was the measure of the man himself. I am sure that, if we were all a bit more like John Smith, this place would be more pleasurable and our politics would be more as they should be.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)

My hon. Friend might not know that I used to work for John Smith, and I will be speaking about him in the debate later. John did not suffer fools gladly. If you crossed him in a bad way, if you let him down or if you did not come up to scratch, you got the hard word—and if he gave you the hard word, you deserved it.

Ian Murray

I am sure that my hon. Friend has no direct experience of that and that he has just been told about that approach taken by the former leader of the Labour party.

Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)

I think that I am the only one here on the Conservative Benches today who was here on the day that John died. I remember being in the Department of Social Security, where I was a Minister, and I remember how shocked everyone was. We learned quite quickly that he had passed away, before it could be publicly announced. I remember the shock among Labour friends as they began to appreciate what had happened, and I would like the hon. Gentleman to know that Conservative Members who were here felt exactly the same as our colleagues in the Labour party. In that spirit, I would say to him that, while he has painted a picture of a robust and quite partisan politician, I cannot personally remember being on the wrong side of one of John Smith’s tirades. That is probably because I was one of those who took the advice of the Whips and did not intervene on him. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that he was able to combine passion with courtesy, and that if there is anything that we are missing at the moment in the difficult debates we are having, it is the ability to combine our passion—whether for our party beliefs or for Europe—with the courtesy that this House and this country need? John Smith’s example should take us forward into the future.

Ian Murray

The right hon. Gentleman’s intervention speaks for itself. If the House will indulge me, I have not yet had the opportunity to say publicly that he was a fantastic Minister in the Foreign Office. I sit on the ​Foreign Affairs Committee, and he was always courteous and straight with us. He was a super Minister, and I hope that he ends up back on the Front Bench as soon as possible.

John Smith’s self-confident approach won a clear majority among Labour MPs for ratification of the Maastricht treaty. Crucially, that left the Conservatives looking fatally divided and Labour clear in its support of a radical and progressive agenda for a reformed European Union that put jobs and people first. I just wish that we could have that approach today. I am in no doubt that he would be deeply saddened by Brexit, angered by the lies told during the referendum and dismayed by the Prime Minister’s approach. I think that today he would endorse exactly the position taken by his former deputy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South. She unequivocally and persuasively believes that any version of a Brexit deal passed by this place should be put to a confirmatory public vote. We all listened intently to her superbly argued speech in this House during the indicative vote process, and many would conclude that John Smith would have agreed with every word she spoke. That is where our politics is lost today. Smith’s politics were based on persuasion and taking people with him, by force of argument, to do what was in the national interest. I believe that our politics has lost that principle at the moment, as the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said.

Then there is John’s beloved Scotland. What would he make of it all today, as a passionate believer in devolution? It is 20 years this week since devolution was introduced. The Scottish Parliament is his legacy. John firmly believed that devolution was the settled will of the Scottish people, but that independence would be disastrous. He would see it as even more of a folly than leaving the European Union. John made his political name by being fully immersed in his time at the Cabinet Office to do devolution. Many thought that it was a poisoned chalice, but he came out of it incredibly well. In a touching twist of fate, the first sitting of the new Scottish Parliament took place on the fifth anniversary of his death in 1999. I wonder what John would think of what is happening in Scotland today, where his idea of devolution to make Scotland the best place it can be is being used as a tool to by nationalists to rip the UK apart. Scotland lost giants like Smith, Dewar and Cook. We could be doing well with them in Scottish politics today.

Key to the devolution reform was, John 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. He was a convert to devolution in the 1970s, not because he saw it as a means of killing “nationalism stone dead”, 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. A Scottish Parliament, he believed, was essential to the democratic governance of “our nation”, by which he meant the United Kingdom, not just Scotland. In John’s view, it was “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. We maybe need a new Smith approach for the 21st century devolution settlement across the whole United Kingdom.​

John Smith leaves a lasting legacy despite dying at just 55. Yes, he is the best Prime Minister we never had and an inspiration to us all, but his legacy also includes the Smith Institute, fellowship programmes for leaders of the future, and the John Smith Centre based at his own University of Glasgow. The centre has now established itself as a leading institute for academic rigour, advocacy and opportunity. It is part think-tank and part defender and advocate for the good in public service, and it exists to lead by his values and his example. There is also the annual John Smith memorial walk. It is a legacy he would be proud of.

Many in the Labour party would refer to themselves as Blairites or Brownites. In fact, many refer to each other in such terms—some positive and some negative. I have never been comfortable identifying with either of those blunt terms, but I am comfortable with being a self-declared Smithite, and on this anniversary we should all be a bit more like John and a bit more Smithite.

Andrew Marr concluded his obituary to John by saying:

“He is the lost leader of a lost country. Had he lived, he would have entered our lives, affected our wealth, altered our morale, changed how we thought about our country, influenced the education of our children. His grin would have become a familiar icon, his diction the raw material of satire. At however many removes, and however obscurely, his personality would have glinted through the state and touched us all. For good or ill? The question is now meaningless. That Britain won’t happen.”

In his final conference speech in 1993, John concluded with this:

“For I tell you this: there is no other force, no other power, no other party, that can turn this country round. It is up to us, all of us, together. This is our time of opportunity: the time to summon up all our commitment; the time to gather round us all our strength. And, united in our common purpose, it is the time to lead our country forward to the great tasks that lie ahead.”

As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of John Smith’s death, let us remember the words that have become his epitaph. The night before he died, he spoke at a European gala dinner in London. When he spoke these now immortal words, he did it from the heart and with his usual passion. They are something that I have always used to guide me in politics, and perhaps we should remind ourselves of them every day as we navigate our own paths in this place. These were the last words he said in public and some of the last words that many of his closest friends ever heard him say. As all our thoughts this weekend will be with Elizabeth, Sarah, Jane, Catherine, the wider family and his friends, we simply say:

“The opportunity to serve our country—that is all we ask.”