Stephen Kerr – 2019 Speech on 25th Anniversary of John Smith’s Death

Below is the text of the speech made by Stephen Kerr, the Conservative MP for Stirling, in the House of Commons on 9 May 2019.

Thank you for your very moving words, Madam Deputy Speaker. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for his magnificent tribute to John Smith.

I rise as a Scot, indeed a Scottish Conservative, to honour one of our finest countrymen. When John Smith died, this country lost a leader of integrity and a leader of faith. His socialism was strongly rooted in his Christian faith, and he proposed a politics that, in his words, could

“replace cynicism with faith, despondency with expectation, despair with hope”.

This uplifting vision of political service—indeed, service to others—is rooted, is it not, in the principle of love, the greatest of all the godly virtues? It speaks to our day, and indeed to all the days we have faced or will face in this House, or wherever we may be.

The service of the best of our parliamentarians, and John Smith is certainly in that number, reminds us that we serve not to gratify our pride or vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion, but, in the words of the Speaker’s prayer that we have the privilege of hearing every sitting day:

“laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind”.

John Smith, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South said at the close of his tribute, sought and asked for the opportunity to serve our country, which is all he wanted. In truth, it should be all we want. He sought to serve, as many hon. and right hon. Members do, and the country is the poorer for his tragic and untimely loss.

John Major described John Smith from the Dispatch Box as

“an opponent, not an enemy”—[Official Report, 12 May 1994; Vol. 243, c. 430.]

—would that our politics reflected that spirit—and he paid tribute to his pragmatism and fair mindedness. John Smith knew that some things were more important than politics. The national interest and the interests of the people of our country always came first for him.

As has already been said, the legacy of John Smith is celebrated, and should be celebrated, in the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the devolution settlement. It is 20 years since the establishment of Holyrood, ​which is now a vital part of the daily political life of Scotland. It is accepted by all, including people like me who campaigned and voted against its establishment. I was on the wrong side then, but there is no zeal like that of a convert—and a convert I am.

As a Scot and a Unionist, I feel that we must work hard to ensure that the Scottish Parliament fulfils its promise of a Scotland at ease with itself, united together and well governed, with a Parliament that makes a real difference to the quality of the lives of its people. But I have to say that I believe there is unfinished business in relation to devolution. In my mind, that is captured in my experience as a newly elected Member of Parliament for a Scottish constituency when I have come up against the culture and mindset of Whitehall.

The better governance of Scotland, I believe, will also require further change at the heart of the UK governmental system. There are yet missing constitutional pieces that undermine and have the potential to damage fatally the unity of the United Kingdom. I regret to say that, too often in Government Departments, there is a prevailing culture of “devolve and forget”. For the Union to flourish, its influence must continue to be felt as a power for good in the lives of people in all parts of the United Kingdom. John Smith knew that only too well, as a Scot who understood that the United Kingdom is at its best when it pulls together in the same direction and when people work together for everyone’s benefit.

John Smith’s resting place is on Iona, where the light of Christianity first came to Scotland. It is a fitting place. On his gravestone are engraved these words:

“An Honest Man’s The Noblest Work of God”.

That is truly fitting. John Smith’s politics were honourable and honest.

There is much we can learn from John Smith’s life and legacy—from a man seen as an opponent and not an enemy; a man who could see beyond politics towards a higher goal of a better country and a better world; a man who strove to give a voice in this place and elsewhere to those who are voiceless. I am only too well aware that in this House we stand on the shoulders of giants. Those who came before us are always with us, and always will be.