The Scottish Titan: The Prime Minister Britain Never Had

By Tom Chidwick

When the death of John Smith, the fourteenth Leader of the Labour Party, was announced twenty-seven years ago today, a wave of warm and affectionate tributes lamented the premature passing of a decent and courteous, dogged and supremely self-confident man—‘a Labour loyalist by instinct, and a pragmatist by inclination’, as his widow, Elizabeth, once described him—who Paddy Ashdown once dubbed ‘the foremost parliamentarian of our time’. 

Even though Labour possessed a more than 20-point lead in the polls when he died, The Times rightly highlighted that John Smith was—much like his successor as Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown—a distinctly ‘old-fashioned figure, never wholly at home in the modern world of the sound-bite and the paper-mâché politics of the television studio’. Despite his ‘owlish blandness’, it has frequently been observed that the ‘Olympian’ Smith would have been an effective and transformative premier who, as Andy McSmith once observed, was ‘calm in times of adversity and motivated by deeply held beliefs. 

Whilst John Smith may have lacked the slick, media-savvy persona of his successor, he retained a deep and residual belief in Labour’s values and purpose, carrying what Tony Benn called ‘the flame of anger against injustice and the flame of hope that we could build a better world through a generation spent in Opposition during the 1980s and 90s. For James Callaghan, then still the ‘last’ Labour Prime Minister, Smith’s ‘calm judgement, his reasonable approach, the sense of proportion … that he had in his conduct and concern about public affairs eminently fitted him to lead our great party. 

Although Smith had already suffered one severe heart attack—a little over a week after the Labour Party conference in Blackpool in 1988, which caused him to retreat to his Morningside home for three months to rebuild his health—his death, after collapsing at his home in the Barbican, stunned both his colleagues within the Palace of Westminster and the country at large. As his predecessor Neil Kinnock remarked later that afternoon, Smith’s seemingly complete recovery, best demonstrated by his newfound enthusiasm for mountain climbing (tackling 108 ‘Munros’), meant that his many friends and colleagues ‘never had reason to think otherwise that the Member for Monklands East would be the next occupant of 10 Downing Street. 

The son of what Tam Dalyell once described as ‘the best kind of pre-war Scottish dominie, learned, serious and of severe integrity’ and educated at Dunoon Grammar School (whose alumni also include Labour’s George Robertson and Brian Wilson), John Smith was a Christian Socialists and an effective and forensic debater, who won the coveted Observer mace at Glasgow University in 1962. This political training at Glasgow perfectly equipped him to deliver funny but complex and carefully crafted speeches on the floor of the House of Commons, in which he demonstrated his mastery of ‘wit, mockery and, when required, sheer invective’. Despite the longevity of his observation that devolution would reflect ‘the settled will of the Scottish people, Donald Dewar once remarked that Smith was not ‘a natural phrasemaker’, avoiding great flights of oratory in favour of ‘dissecting the evidence and picking over the bones to justify his client’s case, inviting them to draw from his selection the inference that undermined the prosecution’s arguments. For Tam Dalyell, Smith was ‘a complex mixture of the ruthless Glasgow University debater, the Edinburgh criminal lawyer and the emotional West Highlander’. 

Though John Smith was a Highlander by birth and formation, he was not without connection to the rest of Scotland—a West Highlander, born and raised in Dalmally, a small Argyll fishing village, university-educated in Glasgow, who cut his political teeth in Fife, represented the towns of Airdrie and Coatbridge in the Central Lowlands, lived in Edinburgh in the East, and is buried on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides. In an essay entitled ‘My Scotland’, Smith penned a warm and eloquent tribute to his native land, recalling summers spent as the ‘deckhand, cook, second engineer and “the boy”’ on a single-masted, oil-powered puffer called The Invercloy—‘peeling potatoes in one bucket while being sick in another’ while crossing the Minch on a stormy day. In addition to recalling his support for the ‘Fight for Fife’ campaign in 1971 and 1972, which successfully railed against the county’s dissolution when Scotland’s local government was reformed, Smith professed his affection for the ‘plain no-nonsense matter-of-factness’ and ‘warm and outgoing natures’ of his Lowland constituents and expressed his pride and gratitude in being able to ‘live in and enjoy my own country – all of it’. 

For all the ‘what ifs’ of his lost premiership, I think devolution to Scotland offers the most interesting chapter of John Smith’s career. After a decade of furious debate about giving Scotland greater autonomy from Westminster, the Wilson and Callaghan governments decided that the answer to the complex and at times seemingly unanswerable Scottish question—which John P. Mackintosh compared to Britain’s need to ‘readjust to a new European role’—was to devolve greater executive and political power to a new ‘Assembly’ and an ‘Executive’ north of the border. During James Callaghan’s often and unfairly maligned administration, Smith (then Michael Foot’s deputy at the Privy Council Office) was tasked with steering the Scotland Act, one of the most complex and contentious pieces of legislation of the decade, through the House of Commons, as the Government attempted to fulfil its by-then long-standing commitment to establishing the first Scottish legislature in nearly three centuries.

In the 1977-78 parliamentary session, Smith spent 47 days on the floor of the House, leading for the Government and forensically goading Francis Pym, the Conservatives’ devolution spokesman who, under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, had been tasked with watering down his party’s earlier commitment to an Assembly. For Alastair Osborne, Smith’s support for devolution was ‘measured but absolute’ and simply the best way to make Scotland a ‘better, more socially just country. On the final Sunday before the referendum on Thursday 1 March (at which the Government asked Scots to decide whether to enact the Scotland Act), the recently promoted Trade Secretary told the Oxford Union that, for all the debate about what to devolve to Edinburgh and when, at its simplest, the question on the ballot paper was whether Scots had ‘some self-confidence in their own political maturity. 

Whilst Smith was one of the most eloquent and persuasive proponents of the Scotland Act—which was memorably described by a Dumfriesshire bookseller as the ‘world’s worst seller’— he would probably have opted for a more precise, simpler, and, arguably, more far-reaching devolution settlement to a Scottish Parliament, had he made it to Downing Street. In an interview with the fledgeling Bulletin of Scottish Politics in Spring 1981, Smith argued that the complexities of the Callaghan administration’s devolution proposals and the ‘fatal ambiguity’ that characterised the Scotland Act had undoubtedly contributed to the apathy that greeted the Assembly during the referendum, at which Scots had voted ‘Yes’ by a small and insufficient majority of just 77,000 votes. Whilst Smith remained a persuasive and committed evolutionist for the remainder of his days, he recognised its limitations, arguing that devolution lacked the simplicity of both the nationalist argument of ‘be proud and free, independence will cost you nothing and give you everything and of the Unionist solution which urged Scots to ‘wrap yourself up more tightly in the Union Jack, and all will be well. For the future Leader of his party, ‘Yes’ campaigners north of the Tweed and west of Offa’s Dyke had, quite simply, been thwarted by the ‘unfortunate fact that we were asking electors to use their minds’. 

Whilst the passage of time has caused the name John Smith to mean significantly less than it once did—Kenneth Roy observed in Scottish Review in 2010 that Smith ‘already feels like a distant figure in popular mythology’ and Sky’s Adam Boulton once remarked that on the ‘friends-and-family test, the most common reaction was ‘some sort of beer’—John Smith’s life and achievements increasingly appear to be something of a gold standard for British politics. Twenty-seven years on, John Smith’s quiet, undemonstrative Presbyterian approach to public life—which, as the Archbishop of Canterbury noted at his memorial service at Westminster Abbey in July 1994, manifested itself in ‘honesty, neighbourly care, hard work, fairness, faithfulness and service to others’—appears ever more remarkable in the ‘Get Rich Quick’, self-promoting politics of 2021. 

Perhaps, the most poignant example of the personal qualities which made Smith so remarkable came at his funeral at Cluny Parish Church in Morningside in Edinburgh, where both the Prime Minister John Major and the then Leader of the Liberal Democrats Paddy Ashdown were moved to tears as the 900-strong congregation, which included no few than two former Prime Ministers and a handful of Labour leaders, mourned the passing of a man who Donald Dewar once remarked could be described by a single word – ‘formidable’. 

Tom Chidwick is a freelance writer and contemporary historian, who writes a fortnightly column for Scottish Review. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly.  He can be found on twitter at @TomChidwick

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