Paul Sweeney – 2019 Speech on 25th Anniversary of John Smith’s Death

Below is the text of the speech made by Paul Sweeney, the Labour MP for Glasgow North East, in the House of Commons on 9 May 2019.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I follow some very moving and thoughtful contributions from Members who were obviously touched greatly by John’s influence in their lives. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for bringing forward this debate at such a pivotal moment in our political history. We can learn a lot from our political traditions, particularly those that John Smith epitomised, as we think about how to address the great challenges that face us today.

Although John Smith was born in 1938, some 51 years before I was born, his influence still affected me in some small ways. Reflecting on his death in May 1994, when I was just five years old and at primary school—primary 1—one of my earliest political memories was the grief that swept through my house. My parents were crying, and I remember that very vividly. I have only some faint memories of politics in the 1990s, and one of the earliest ones was John Smith’s death. Another one was Labour coming into government, and perhaps Princess Diana’s death. These were the things I remember from my childhood as the pivotal episodes of the 1990s in politics that influenced me as a small child.

John Smith’s death definitely struck a chord from a very early age because, after so much despair at the loss of the 1992 election, my parents had invested in the hope that Labour might finally come to power and achieve the changes, as it was seen at the time, to liberate our communities, which had been ravaged so terribly by Conservative party politics. There was a great deal of hope, and of lost hope in that moment, and that was definitely impressed on me from a young age. Tam Dalyell wrote about how he remembered it as similar to the death of Gaitskell in 1963 aged just 56. That was a similar episode of great potential and a great future Prime Minister lost to this country, and the potential of what that history could have entailed and what it could have meant had it not been altered in such a terrible way.​
The key lessons from John Smith’s political tradition and his political behaviour are that he was suspicious of factional demagoguery and of opportunist political spivs who crafted their values in managerialist speak. However, he was also very intolerant of his party being in impotent opposition. He yearned for Labour to return to government, and that was evident in his speeches and the way he addressed this House. In truth, he was a complex mixture of different things that influenced him as a person. There was the ruthless Glasgow University debater, which is a great tradition; the Edinburgh lawyer, which is another great tradition; and the emotional west highlander. He came from a very beautiful part of the world.

In Tam Dalyell’s obituary, there is a reference to Calum MacDonald who was Member of Parliament for the Western Isles at the time of John Smith’s death. He observed:

“That John Smith was a West Coast Highlander by birth and background came across strongly in three ways. First, that socialism for John was not about dry theories on narrow sectional interests, but about values, principles, and moral beliefs. Second was his great democratic and egalitarian quality—that he could relax with absolute ease in any circle of people. And third, the sense he gave of being a man with a healthy ‘hinterland’—a man with a passion for politics but also with strong roots in his family, in Scottish society, and the land that he came from.”

John Smith’s presence was often felt. I went to Glasgow University, and one of the first things I did was joint its union. Anyone who joins Glasgow University union cannot miss John Smith, because he is there facing every student who walks into that building as a wonderful bronze bust that stares from the top of the stairs of the debating chamber, and simply says on it “Friend of the Union”. That is what encapsulated the spirit of John Smith.

Working-class people often go to Glasgow University, which is quite unusual in Britain because most of its students are home students and tend to come from the city. It has a fine working-class tradition, and because of that debating chamber where—like so many politicians from across Scotland—John Smith cut his teeth, he came to this House without fearing it and with a healthy understanding of how it works. Working-class people who went into politics cut their teeth at the Glasgow University union, which to this day is still the greatest debating union in the world. John Smith did a great deal to achieve that. He won the Observer mace for the union in 1962 and was convener of debates. He formed that great tradition along with Donald Dewar.

My maths teacher at school, Mrs McKee, used to tell me about going to see John and Donald who were a great double act in the chamber of Glasgow University. She recounted a particularly memorable occasion in November 1963, when the debate had to be suspended because someone burst in and said that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. It is interesting how those great swathes of history can touch each other in such ways, and perhaps the great figures of that period influenced John’s politics, just as he in turn influenced us. That is the great thing about institutions such as university unions. They build a great community, and even though I never knew John and he died when I was a small child, I still sensed the golden thread that runs through those institutions and inspires those who come after. That is a real sense of immortality. A person dies once when they physically die, but they would die a second time if their memory was lost, and keeping that memory and understanding alive is critical.​

Until recent years, the university union held a biannual dinner and debate in honour of John Smith, and I remember that Tom Clarke, the predecessor of my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), came to speak to us. He spoke movingly about John being such a lovely man and someone who did not suffer fools gladly. He was also a great friend to people across political traditions and divides. He was not sectarian or petty. He was certainly tribal and firm in his beliefs, but he maintained friendships despite that. We should remember that important point in our current politics.

After his election in 1970, John did not necessarily pursue those things that would lead to progression in the political hierarchy, and in 1971, he voted, along with 68 Labour colleagues, against the Whip on joining the common market. He told the Commons that day that

“economic forces must somehow be brought under popular control and be fashioned towards social and political ends that the people determine”—[Official Report, 26 July 1971; Vol. 822, c. 131.]

We should remember that fine sentiment today as we consider our future relationship with the rest of the world.

In 1974, when Labour was on the cusp of coming into government and defeating the Heath Government, John made another watershed decision that might come across as counterintuitive. He said that he did not want to take up the post of Solicitor General for Scotland, because he did not want to be typecast in Scottish affairs and as a lawyer-politician. Perhaps I made a fateful decision when I decided to become a junior shadow Minister in the Scotland Office, but I am proud to have done so in the tradition of John Smith, who was a predecessor of mine and a shadow Scotland Office apparatchik.

John was quickly forgiven and joined the Department of Energy. Cutting across political traditions, he served under Tony Benn who was then Secretary of State for Energy. Benn tasked him with setting up the British National Oil Corporation in Glasgow. Today, it is an office building used by Santander, which encapsulates what Labour was trying to achieve in the 1970s and how it was turned over by Thatcherism. He set up a great institution, which was a vision for mobilising the great resources of North sea oil for the common good and the greater betterment of the nation. Sadly, his vision and the BNOC-Britoil building were dismantled and that tradition and opportunity was lost, but that was another example of John’s vision.

John was promoted to Minister of State under Michael Foot to pilot the Scotland devolution Bill through the Commons. Like Benn, Foot was full of praise for Smith’s loyalty and expertise. His excellent personal relations with Benn and Foot made it much more acceptable that a tough right-winger should be become a Cabinet Minister from 1978. From 1979, until his appointment as the leader of the Labour Party in 1992, he won every shadow Cabinet election.

On his advocacy of devolution, despite much criticism and opposition within the Labour party, John said:

“It is the Labour Party which has campaigned to get a Scottish Assembly established. No other political party has pioneered the way in which this Labour Party has.”

Indeed, he had disdain for the intransigence on the constitution of both the Conservative party and the nationalist traditions on this question. He recognised ​that the United Kingdom has great benefit to Scotland, but that it is over-centralised. He sought to create a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh that would give better government to Scotland, while strengthening the United Kingdom. Then, as now, that is the preferred view of most of the people of Scotland, as regularly tested in opinion polls both before and since the 1997 and 2014 referendums. However, he also recognised that not responding imaginatively and vigorously to the need to reform the constitutional structure of Britain would create such tensions from a notion of a democratic deficit and regional imbalance that would only serve to render the fracturing of the United Kingdom altogether as the more likely outcome.

John Smith said in 1992 that there were two forces sawing away at the legs that support the Union: one was the nationalists, who wished to destroy the United Kingdom; and the other was the stupid Conservative party, whose members blundered on oblivious to the consequences that their arrogant actions were having for the future integrity of the United Kingdom. That was borne out in the Conservative party’s opposition to the creation of the Scottish Parliament. And of course the SNP boycotted the Scottish constitutional convention and opposed devolution at the 1997 general election. It is nice to see that John’s understanding of the problem and its solution was proven right by history. There is now much consensus on how he saw the future develop.

John was very proud of the Labour party: proud of its name and proud of its history. He was confident of the contribution it could make to the future progress of our country. He was also proud of Scotland, saying:

“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 to wish to ever sever them, I think I am as entitled as any separatist to speak for my fellow countrymen.”

In the particularly vicious discourse that prevails in Scotland in the wake of the 2014 referendum, those sentiments ought to be heard far and wide across Scotland.

On the Labour party, John said it was:

“a united and a determined party, impatient for the responsibility of power. Let us communicate our resolve, our ambitions, our values, to the people. For they are ready, they are so ready to listen to the message of hope and of confidence which Labour proudly proclaims.”

Sadly, death robbed him of the opportunity to serve, but the Labour Government of 1997 delivered his unfinished business of home rule. His friend from his days on the floor of the university union to the Floor of this House, Donald Dewar, said at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, almost 20 years ago to the day:

“A Scottish Parliament. Not an end: a means to greater ends.”

As John Smith said,

“What’s the point of being in politics, if you can’t speak up for the people who can’t speak up for themselves?”

That was the greater end to which John Smith sought to achieve a Scottish Parliament. In his maiden speech, he spoke up for his constituents from mining communities about how poverty was affecting them. That must be our task today: to demonstrate the same courage in speaking for the interests of people who cannot speak up for themselves across our constituencies and countries and to share John Smith’s optimism for what public service can achieve so that we can realise our capacity as ​a nation and a society to set our own objectives and to set about achieving them in a spirit or resolute determination. May he rest in peace.

Paul Sweeney – 2017 Maiden Speech in the House of Commons

Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Paul Sweeney, the Labour MP for Glasgow North East, in the House of Commons on 13 July 2017.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak. I also thank right hon. and hon. Members and distinguished strangers in the Gallery for their presence. I am grateful for this opportunity to deliver my maiden speech and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) who made a remarkable and inspirational maiden speech about his journey from new citizen to Member of this House and we welcome him with genuine hearts.

It is a great privilege to deliver my maiden speech in a debate about such a tumultuous event in our nation’s history. I congratulate the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on his re-election as Chair of the Defence Committee and thank my friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for his kind introduction earlier today.

It is customary for a new Member to make some reference to his predecessors, and reflecting on the introductory remarks of Richard Buchanan in his 1964 maiden speech, I noted that he declared:

“If it were within my power to introduce a new tradition to this House, it would be that hon. Members who are making their maiden speeches should do so from the Dispatch Box so that they might lay their trembling hands upon it and give some support to their quaking knees”.

On rising to speak today, I can thoroughly attest to my sympathy for those sentiments. The only consolation is that I will not have long to wait for relief, as I will have the first opportunity to address this House from the Dispatch Box next week as shadow Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. I can only hope that it will provide more ample support for my trembling limbs.

Dick Buchanan was the embodiment of the finest political traditions of my constituency: he was a proud railway worker, socialist and trade unionist. During his tenure as a councillor on the Glasgow Corporation, it was not unknown for him to turn up at the city chambers from the Cowlairs railway works in his boiler suit, before changing into the dapper pinstriped suit of the city treasurer. He also left an eminent legacy to future Members of this House as Chairman of the House of Commons Library Committee during its transition from an old-style, gentleman’s-club library to the expert modern research facility that is at the disposal of Members of Parliament today. I am sure that that facility has been particularly appreciated by those new Members preparing their maiden speeches.

The area of Glasgow that I represent has a remarkable and diverse history, and that is reflected in the diversity and vibrancy of the people who live there today. From its early origins at the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, it has subsequently been vital to Glasgow’s development, even though it was formally incorporated into the city only in 1891, when Glasgow’s territory was doubled in size. The Molendinar Burn, on the banks of which the founder of Glasgow, St. Mungo, established his cathedral and with it the surrounding town, flows from Hogganfield loch, the fresh waters of which also nourished what is the longest established business in the city of Glasgow—Tennent’s brewery. The brewery was founded at the Drygate in the 1550s and its amber nectar has slaked the thirst of many a Glaswegian over the centuries.

When I attempt to visualise the evolution of my part of Glasgow, Danny Boyle’s epic opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic games immediately springs to mind. What was once an area of sylvan beauty and rural charm, a landscape of farms and weavers’ cottages, was rapidly swept away as the first harbingers of the industrial age emerged—the first canals and, later, the first railways in Scotland which, traversed the district. By happy coincidence of its position on the approach to central Glasgow from Edinburgh and the Lanarkshire coalfields, Springburn found itself at the epicentre of this frenetic growth as railway manufacturing and associated industries coalesced there to form the largest centre of locomotive manufacture in the British empire. At its peak, it employed 8,000 people and had the capacity to build 600 steam locomotives a year, most of which were for export.

Other engineering innovations were pioneered there, too, most notably the Johnston Dogcart, which, in 1895, was the first motor car to be built in Britain by railway engineer George Johnston in Balgrayhill. The first road trials took place in the dead of night, with Johnston driving the car at a reckless 12 mph on a 20-mile journey around Glasgow. For this apparently reckless behaviour, he was charged with contravening the Locomotive Acts by driving his horseless carriage during prohibited hours along Buchanan Street—then, as now, the main shopping thoroughfare in Glasgow.

Today my constituency retains this fine automotive industry pedigree in the form of Allied Vehicles, the largest manufacturer of specialist taxis and mobility vehicles in the United Kingdom, which employs more than 650 highly skilled people in Possilpark. This high-value manufacturer is also ingrained in the community, supporting many excellent projects such as Possobilities, which supports disabled people in the local area, as well as the highly successful Glasgow Tigers speedway.

As my friend the hon. Member for Glasgow South mentioned earlier, our engineering prowess was also critical to supporting Britain’s war effort during the first world war. Springburn’s railway works gave themselves over to the production of munitions for the duration of the war. Throughout this period, they were responsible for producing war material such as the first tanks and aircraft. The works also produced the first modern artificial limbs for wounded servicemen.

The directors of the North British Locomotive Company even offered their headquarters building to the Red Cross, as existing hospitals were insufficient to cope with the war wounded. It opened on Christmas eve 1914. Wounded troops would be transported directly from the southern channel ports to the hospital on specially converted ambulance trains. By the end of the war, a total of 8,211 servicemen had been treated.

Nearby Stobhill Hospital, the place where I first entered a more peaceful world some 75 years later, was also requisitioned by the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1914 and more than 1,000 patients were cared for there at any given time until the return of the hospital to civilian use in 1920. As an Army reservist, I have the sacrifice that my city made during the first world war impressed on me every year when I attend the Remembrance Day service in George Square. The stark enormity of the statement on the city’s cenotaph, that Glasgow raised over 200,000 troops—a fifth of its population—with 18,000 of that number losing their lives and a further 35,000 injured, never fails to move me with the sheer scale of the carnage that afflicted working people a century ago.

My constituency of Glasgow North East was created at the 2005 general election by the amalgamation of the Glasgow Springburn and Glasgow Maryhill seats. Both areas have previously enjoyed excellent representation from exemplary parliamentarians. Although my seat was once described as a Labour citadel, there were even two Conservative Members in the interwar period, though that was thankfully a brief dalliance. The metaphorically and physically towering legacy of my antecedents was brought into sharp focus when I recently had the opportunity to venture into the Speaker’s House and was confronted by a 14-foot-high oil painting of Lord Martin of Springburn and Port Dundas. If there was ever a more effective device to make his successors feel simultaneously inspired and inadequate I have yet to find one.

Michael Martin succeeded Dick Buchanan as the MP for Springburn from 1979 to 2009, which of course culminated in his election as Speaker of the House of Commons from 2000 onwards. His parliamentary career, spanning seven consecutive general elections, was selflessly committed to the service of others and epitomises the opportunity that the Labour movement has offered for the advancement of working-class people over the last century. He rose from being a Springburn sheet metal worker and shop steward to become the Speaker of this House. I was particularly gratified to meet Lord Martin just last week, and he told me of his delight that his seat was now back in “safe hands”, as he put it.

My first ever experience of party political campaigning was in the Glasgow North East by-election of 2009, after a telephone call from Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah drew me from my exam revision to help William Bain hold the seat for Labour. As someone who was also born and raised in the local area—we were both the first members of our respective families to benefit from a university education—William proved to be a dedicated, industrious and committed champion for our city and its communities during his time in the House, speaking vociferously in opposition to the coalition Government’s vicious and self- defeating austerity policies during his tenure as shadow Scotland Office Minister.

Before I had the opportunity to meet my immediate predecessor, Anne McLaughlin, I watched her maiden speech with great interest when she delivered it almost two years ago to the day, in July 2015. I was particularly impressed by her yearning passion for improving the lives of her constituents and restoring civic pride to our communities—a passion that I share deeply. Anne cited the example of the project to restore the historic Springburn winter gardens, the largest glasshouse in Scotland, as a totemic symbol of our mission to continue regenerating a community that is still contending with the challenge of urban dereliction. As one of the founders of the project, I was personally delighted that Anne made such a generous endorsement of our efforts in her maiden speech. I would also like to thank her for the friendly and good-natured election campaign we conducted in June and I look forward to working together in areas of mutual interest in the future.

All the maiden speeches of my predecessors reflect common challenges that have faced our constituents over the years. Though much progress has been made in certain areas, unfortunately many of the issues they identified decades ago remain all too stubbornly apparent today. Michael Martin referred to the urgent need to strengthen Government intervention in developing new industries to revitalise the local economy and alleviate the unemployment and despair caused by the collapse of locomotive manufacturing. That legacy of decline is something that my constituency has never fully recovered from. I felt that keenly from an early age, as I learned about Springburn’s past industrial glories from my grandparents. It is what inspired me to follow my grandfather and father into the Clyde shipbuilding industry, and later to move to Scottish Enterprise, burning with a zeal to rejuvenate the great Clyde-built industries that once gave pride and prosperity to our city.

Having recently been involved with the development of Labour’s new industrial strategy for Scotland, I am excited about the opportunity before us to unlock a new era of prosperity with the application of coherent, long-term thinking about the development of more high-value industries in our country, and I look forward to pursuing that vision with vigorous enthusiasm in this place.

Another recurring subject for my predecessors is housing, particularly exploitation by private landlords and the mass clearance of housing in areas such as Springburn. All Glasgow Labour MPs have stood firmly in the tradition of John Wheatley and his famous Housing Act of 1924, which provided state subsidies for house building to build a land fit for heroes. It led directly to the creation of Glasgow’s municipal housing system, and saw large-scale building of some 57,000 new homes in new districts such as Riddrie and Carntyne in my constituency between the wars.

Heroines such as Mary Barbour led the struggle against rapacious landlordism during the first world war; she led the women of the city in the 1915 rent strike that ultimately forced this House to legislate to control rents for the duration of the war. I am delighted that my predecessor Maria Fyfe, who represented Glasgow Maryhill for so many years, has successfully campaigned for a statue commemorating Mary Barbour and the Glasgow rent strikers—only the fourth statue of a woman to be erected in the city of Glasgow.

As a result of the efforts of my predecessor Michael and others, Glasgow pioneered the modern housing association movement that saved many of the traditional Victorian tenements in areas such as Dennistoun and Springburn. By writing off the city’s £1 billion housing debt, the last Labour Government enabled an unprecedented renewal of its housing stock, led by organisations such as ng homes; more than £100 million has been invested in improving housing standards in my constituency. These physical improvements are about not just the sandstone, glass and slate, but reinvigorating the very soul and character of our city, and what it means and feels like to be a Glaswegian from one generation to the next.

These efforts have, however, been frustrated by Conservative party policies that continue to undermine living standards in my constituency. Despite efforts to regenerate our communities, my constituents are still subject to the indignity of benefit sanctions, tax credit cuts and frozen wages. With unemployment and benefit claimant rates in my constituency double the national average, and child poverty at a disgraceful 36%, the continued onslaught of Tory cuts to living standards is too much to bear for many. When a constituent approaches me in the street to describe how she was forced to financially support her son and his partner, who was suffering from a terminal brain tumour, for nine months before his death, as he had been found fit to work and had had his benefits cut, it is clear to me that we have seen the creation of a new national minimum definition of dignity, under which anything short of starvation and anything above destitution is now seemingly acceptable —a definition that is apparently blind to any appeal to human compassion. That view was galvanised when I watched those on the Government Benches cheer with perverse triumph as our effort to remove the public sector pay cap was defeated last month, quite oblivious to the harm it causes to millions of people.

My duty as a Labour Member of Parliament has been crystallised by those observations. The people of Glasgow North East sent me here because they despair of the Tories and yearn for the vision of hope and prosperity that Labour has offered them under the inspirational leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn).

In 1948, this House, having witnessed the disastrous effects of two terrible world wars, was told that the welfare state had been established to remove the shame from need and to create a society with solidarity at its foundation. Today it is our solemn responsibility to do everything in our power to defeat this Government and restore that abiding principle in our society. That is why the people of Glasgow North East sent me here, and I will do my utmost to repay their faith in me through how I acquit myself in pursuit of that endeavour in this House.