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House of Commons

Thursday 12 May 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]


Madam Speaker : I regret to have to report to the House the death of the right hon. John Smith QC, Member for Monklands, East. The House will wish to know that this sitting will now be suspended until 3.30 pm when the Adjournment will be moved so that tributes may be paid to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Copies of the business statement for next week are available in the Vote Office.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming

Mr. John Smith (Tributes)

3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) : I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

When I heard the tragic news of John Smith this morning, I thought it right that the House should meet this afternoon to pay tribute to a distinguished parliamentarian and then adjourn. I do not believe that there would have been the stomach for any other business in the House today.

I know that the whole House would wish me first to express my deep and warm sympathy for Mrs. Smith and for John Smith's family, his wife and his daughters. In the House, we have lost a formidable senior Member of very rare ability.

To the Labour party also, I offer my deep sympathy. After some serious hammer blows that they have faced among their colleagues in recent months, they have lost a leader and, I know, for many of them a deep and close friend of many years' standing. But above all, Elizabeth Smith, Sarah, Jane and Catherine have lost a husband, a father and a part of their lives which can never be replaced. John Smith was one of the outstanding parliamentarians of modern politics. He was skilled in the procedures of this House, skilled in upholding its traditions, a fair-minded but, I can say as well as any Member in the House, tough fighter for what he believed in and, above all, he was outstanding in parliamentary debate. As one would expect of a barrister and Queen's counsel, he was always master of his brief, however complex and however detailed it might be. But beyond being master of his brief, on good days--and for him there were many good days-- his speeches could shape and move the will of the House in the way that few Members are able to do.

Over recent years, both as Prime Minister and as Chancellor of the Exchequer, I had the pleasure and the privilege of facing John Smith across this Dispatch Box. I learned on those occasions to acknowledge the skill and the wit with which he mastered his arguments. He had that rare ability to switch with speed from irony to sarcasm to invective and to fact, and sometimes, in the heat of

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parliamentary debate, to half fact, on every occasion knowing exactly how and when to move from one mood to the other for maximum parliamentary and political effect. Those are formidable skills, they are rare skills and, even for those against whom those skills were deployed, it is hard to bear that we will never see or hear those skills in this House again.

He had no malice. There were things that he cared for passionately. He lived for them ; he fought for them ; he cared for them. But he carried his fight fairly, without malice, without nastiness. The bruises that existed soon faded after a dispute with John Smith. In our parliamentary democracy, it is the fate of party leaders to dispute, to scorn, to disagree. We have an adversarial system of politics--the best in the world, I believe, but adversarial. So it was in the nature of my political relationship with John Smith that we frequently clashed in public and in the House, yet afterwards, in private, we met often and amiably--again, no bruises.

Inevitably, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have to conduct business in private and on confidential matters. Whenever we did, I always found him courteous, fair minded and constructive, but also tough for what he was seeking and what he believed in. We would share a drink-- sometimes tea, sometimes not tea--and our discussions on those occasions ranged far beyond the formal business that we were transacting. To the despair of my private office and, I suspect, sometimes of his, the meetings extended far beyond the time that was immediately scheduled for them.

Under our constitution, the role of the Leader of the Opposition is unique. It is a vital role--not in government, but vital to the determination of the way in which we conduct our affairs and to the protection of people who oppose the Government on a range of issues. The Leader of the Opposition is in the anteroom of power, yet not in the seat of power itself. In that position--perhaps for a short time, perhaps for a long time--he must maintain his party's hunger for government and never let that appetite diminish. He must remain confident and never let the years of waiting sour or embitter him or the nature of public life. He must keep alive hope and ambition and must keep sharp the cutting edge of his own party's beliefs. If I may judge him from this side of the House, it seemed to me that John Smith trod that path for his party and its supporters in the country with skill and assurance that few have matched.

Political differences are not the be-all and end-all of relationships for Members of the House. When I think of John Smith, I think of an opponent, not an enemy ; and when I remember him, I shall do so with respect and affection. When I think of his premature death, I shall think of the waste that it has brought to our public life--the waste of a remarkable political talent ; the waste of a high and honourable ambition to lead our country ; the waste of a man in public life who, in all his actions, retained a human touch ; and, in some ways above all, the waste of the tranquillity and happiness that his past endeavours would have so richly deserved in the years to come.

Let me end where I began. In the weeks that lie immediately ahead, John's family will need all their courage. Let us show by what we say and do today that, while we cannot bear for them their pain, we can offer them the comfort of shared respect and shared grief.

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3.38 pm

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South) : I thank the Prime Minister in all sincerity for what he has said, and the spirit in which he has spoken.

Opposition Members also mourn our country's loss, but we grieve for our own. There are few people the announcement of whose death would bring tears to the eyes of everyone who knew them ; John Smith was such a man. He was, as the Prime Minister said, a man of formidable intellect, of the highest ethics and of staunch integrity. Part of the conventional wisdom of British politics was that he looked like a bank manager--something that caused him amusement, and some bank managers some resentment. Perhaps in consequence, he was often labelled unduly sober or excessively cautious--especially by those who judge readily--and judged on the facade. But, although he certainly had a safe pair of hands, appearances were deceptive. John was no sobersides. He had a wicked sense of humour, often displayed--as the Prime Minister said--in the House. He loved a good gossip, and he liked nothing better than a convivial drink with friends, when he was excellent company.

One of his favourite sayings was that to succeed in politics, you have to be prepared to take a risk. In fact, I used to joke with him that he was an ideal combination in a political leader : someone who looked the acme of sober judgment, but was perfectly prepared to take a flier when he thought the occasion called for it.

Some months ago, I saw a political profile of John which featured a photograph of him as a young boy. He had a wicked grin from ear to ear, his tie was around his ear and the text mentioned that his shirt tails were always hanging out. It was a kind of "Just William" of a picture. Those who saw John Smith every day had no difficulty in detecting that boy in the statesman and the leader.

Not long ago, I observed to a colleague that I had never known a man like John. He had such calm certainty, such natural strength and self-confidence ; but, while he had supreme confidence, he lacked any trace of cockiness or conceit. He just knew what he could do. I have never known a man so at ease with himself.

He adored his family, and our hearts go out to Elizabeth and to the girls. He was at his most lovable when he was talking about his daughters--for the love and support that John offered to, and received from, his family was not only the core of his personal life ; it was central to his political life and beliefs. He wanted for others the richness he enjoyed.

He said to me recently, "Why would anyone bother to go into politics, unless it was to speak up for people who cannot speak up for themselves ?" That feeling for others, along with his hatred of injustice, was the force which drove him--the service to which he gave his life.

Last night, he spoke at a gala dinner in London. He was in fine fettle and in high spirits. He spoke not from a text but from notes, and when he sat down I congratulated him especially on his final sentence--spoken, as it was, off the cuff and from the heart. They were almost the last words I heard him say. He looked at the assembled gathering, and he said :

"The opportunity to serve our country--that is all we ask." Let it stand as his epitaph.

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3.44 pm

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil) : I wish to associate myself, the Liberal Democrats and all those on this Bench with the words of the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett). For all of us today, the prevailing feeling must be one of terrible loss, but also of injustice--injustice because such a bright talent, so close to the point of fulfilment, has been so cruelly lost to us all.

My abiding memory of John Smith could be a personal one. As the right hon. Lady said, all of those who had the privilege to spend some private time in his company will recall his sharp wit and the deep personal warmth that made him such excellent company on every occasion. But in fact, my most powerful memory is rather similar to that of the right hon. Lady. Last night, my wife and I were sitting together, as we all too rarely have the chance to do, watching the 10 o'clock news. We saw John emerge from his car holding Elizabeth, his wife, by the hand, and then walk into the function referred to by the right hon. Lady. I turned to my wife and said, "He looks terrific ; he really does look like a potential Prime Minister." Today, that possibility and all the prodigious talent that lay behind it is lost to us.

In a period when the public are not much given to trusting politicians, John Smith's integrity, his commitment to his cause and, perhaps most of all, the fact that his extraordinary parliamentary talent was never ever tainted with rancour, won him the trust and admiration of politicians and people alike well beyond the confines of those who shared his political beliefs.

John's great abilities could have taken him almost

anywhere--certainly to the top of the legal profession. Instead, he dedicated his life to the Labour party to fight for people, principles and the values that he held dear. Of course, he climbed to the top of his party. He was the youngest member of Jim Callaghan's Cabinet ; he was a pioneer of Scottish devolution ; he was a committed and consistent advocate of Britain's European future. He was also a courageous man, and his recovery after his first heart attack was a testament to that personal courage. In politics, he showed a dogged determination in the face of adversity and challenge.

Today, we have lost one of the foremost parliamentary talents of our time-- a powerful advocate for the politics of progress in Britain and a thoroughly decent and deeply gifted man. However, whatever our loss, it is nothing to that of his wife Elizabeth and their children, to whom we all extend our deepest sympathies and condolences. 3.48 pm

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley) : I, too, wish to express our deepest condolences to Mrs. Smith and her family. I wish also to convey sincere sympathy to our parliamentary colleagues in the Labour party on the loss of a leader of great integrity and honesty. I was privileged to get to know John Smith when I worked with him, in the service of the United Kingdom, when he was a member of the Callaghan Government--with which I was reputed to have a certain working relationship.

John Smith's passing is a grievous blow to all of us on this side of the House by reason of his role as leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, in which he was ever mindful of his duty to protect the interests of all the Opposition parties, which today feel that they have lost a true friend.

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3.49 pm

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn) : May I first thank the Prime Minister for making the decision about today's business so that the House can signify the great sense of bereavement that I know will be felt in all quarters.

All of us know the numbness and emptiness that seize us when we hear of the death of a loved one or a dear friend. No matter what the time or circumstances of death, the feeling of shock overwhelms all other senses. This morning, I was grieving over the death of my beloved mother-in-law who died very suddenly last night when I heard the dreadful news that John was dead. I have to say that I was desolated.

Across the movement that he led with distinction for all too short a time, and in the House and in the country, John Smith will be mourned. The nation knows that his consummate abilities and his fierce sense of social justice all carried the force of integrity and talent that is precious and much needed at all times and in all nations.

I was proud to have John Smith as a loyal and generous friend, and I valued his judgment and his wisdom as a comrade and as the leader of my party. He held conviction without obsession ; his principles were for application, not for decoration ; and his superb intelligence was for practical use, not for adornment. But among all his attributes the one that glowed most of all was his humour. It was not only evidence of a natural wit that delighted friends privately and the House and wider audiences publicly ; it was a product of his ability to put life into perspective. It showed resilience under pressure and determination in adversity.

As I list those qualities, I have to confess that my grief is mixed with anger--anger that he has gone when his vitality and his value were so clear ; anger that he has been denied the opportunity to show the full scope of his great talents in the highest office ; and anger that he has been taken at such a young age from the family whom he cherished so very much.

I know that the whole House and the whole Labour movement will, in the midst of the sorrow that we feel, think most of Elizabeth and their daughters whose loss of a beloved husband and father is by far the greatest loss of all. I am one of many who will remember John Smith with respect for his tenacity and his brilliance and with the deepest affection for his exuberance and his humanity. He was, in Shelley's words, one of those who

"with resolute will Vanquished earth's pride and meanness, burst the chains, The icy chains of custom, and have shone The day-stars of their age".

We will long remember him ; we will always be grateful for the joyful privilege of knowing John Smith.

3.53 pm

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : In associating my party with the comments that have already been made in tribute to John Smith, may I say that the Social Democratic and Labour party wants to be associated with the comments that I shall make.

John Smith and I grew up with the tough political background of Glasgow university debating and he was a man for whom I had a great deal of regard. I think that all of us will miss him not only in the context of our parliamentary life but in that of Scottish politics to which he brought a dynamism and his own drive.

People have spoken about his various qualities and I would, of course, endorse them, but, if we are looking for

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an epitaph for John Smith, one of the great things was that he earned the love and laughter of friends, and his friends came from the spectrum of the House, from all political parties. I ask that the love and laughter that we shared with John Smith are now given fully to support Elizabeth and their daughters on what is a very sad occasion for Scottish and United Kingdom politics.

3.54 pm

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) : Nobody, whatever his party, can deny the great service that John Smith gave to the Labour party, and all the work that he did. I shall add only one comment, because only those who are in the House can know or understand it. Because of my position, I often worked with John Smith on procedural matters, and he was always most understanding and one of the greatest supporters that one could have had of parliamentary democracy and of the structure of this Parliament. If there is a tribute that this Parliament can give to any man, it is that he was a good House of Commons man. John Smith was a great House of Commons man.

3.55 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : I thank the Prime Minister and the other Members who have spoken for what they have said about John Smith. I had the privilege of knowing him and of working with him closely over 25 years in Parliament and in government, and he had two qualities that I should like to mention. Inside him burned the flame of anger against injustice, and the flame of hope that we could build a better world. That was what moved him.

Secondly, he was a man who always said the same, wherever he was. Whether one heard him in public at a meeting or in private, whether one heard him in the Cabinet or in the House of Commons, he always said the same thing. For that reason, he was trusted. He was a lovely man, and I hope that his family will gain something from the knowledge that their grief is shared by us.

3.56 pm

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) : I hope that the House will allow me to speak, as someone who entered the House on the same day as John Smith did--and the same day, too, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock). John and I served alongside each other in the Labour Government for five years, and in the shadow Cabinet for 12 years. We were not simply partners in the party and on the Front Bench, but we stood shoulder to shoulder on many of the issues that confronted both the House and my party. We stood shoulder to shoulder on the issues inside the Labour party, which could have caused enormous difficulty for our party, but which we came through. John showed courage and integrity during that period.

As members of the Government, we also fought for the shipbuilding industry, not only because we had a common interest through our ministerial jobs, but because of the unique alliance that John and I had because we were the only two Members of the House of Commons who were sponsored by the Amalgamated Society of Boilermakers. We may not have been thought the most obvious people to be sponsored by that union, but it was an elite union, and, that being so, John was an appropriate person to be sponsored by it.

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While seeing the ironic side of that, he was also deeply honoured by being sponsored by that trade union, and by the GMB, which followed it, because he was deeply rooted in the socialist movement and the trade union movement. I know that he would have wished his trade union roots to be recorded in the House today, and in doing so may I also join in paying my personal respects to Elizabeth, and in offering her and her family my deep sympathy.

3.58 pm

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : The House will understand that all the other Scottish Conservatives are elsewhere today, so I am speaking on behalf of my colleagues who are in Inverness. I am sure that I speak for every one of them when I say that none of us ever thought other than very highly of John Smith. My personal view is that he would have made an outstanding Prime Minister, given the opportunity, and, because he was a Scot, I was especially proud of that. We all feel sad for Elizabeth and the girls, and we hope that what is said today in Parliament will in some measure make up for the dreadful loss that they are experiencing.

3.59 pm

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North) : Just before John was elected, I was elected as chair of the parliamentary Labour party ; the chief shop steward representing the Back Benchers. As such, I was thrown constantly into John's company. I must say, as others have said before, that, at a time when family values are being questioned, the big thing about John Smith was his family. So I join with all the others who have said that our sympathies must go out to Elizabeth, and the daughters at a time when life is extremely difficult for them, having lost a beloved father.

Not only that, they have lost someone who had the touch of ordinary people and who understood people. That was one of his great strengths. One of the things that he did was to strike a chord with people. I agree with those who say that he was a very dependable person. He came over as a moderate, but there was a radical streak in John as well. He had a wonderful sense of humour, which often relieved the tedium of meetings, which, sometimes, all of us have to attend. People not only felt better for knowing him, but felt inspired by being with him and in his presence.

He struck a chord in the country, particularly when he talked about employment and the need to return to full employment. Not only have we lost a great friend and a great leader of the parliamentary Labour party, but the country has lost a Prime Minister in waiting. 4 pm

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mo n) : It was with a deep sense of shock and sorrow that I heard the news this morning of the passing of John Smith. I and my colleagues in Plaid Cymru wish to send our deepest sympathy to his family, to his wife and to his daughters. We also want to share with his colleagues in the Labour party and those elsewhere in the House the deep sense of loss of a fine and committed parliamentarian and someone who had a complete mastery of the skills of debate in the House.

I and my colleagues shared with him a positive vision of Europe and his belief in a decentralist form of government. We all mourn the loss of a man of great

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ability, tremendous courage, strong convictions and immense dignity, who was honourable in debate. He will be greatly missed.

4.1 pm

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West) : John Smith was "a lad of many parts", but perhaps his greatest gift was his ability to unite people. I suppose most of the political experts would put John slightly to the right of me on the political spectrum of the Labour party, but John's greatest ability was to unite people, whatever their views, in the struggle against injustice and the struggle for a better life for the people whom we represent. It is a tragedy that our party and our country have been robbed of such a great asset. I particularly remember his efforts many years ago, when he was in government, to get the Scottish home rule Bill on to the statute book. Again, it is a tragedy that the architect of that legislation is no longer with us, but I trust that, soon, the fruits of his labours will be there to be seen.

John Smith may go down in history as the greatest Prime Minister that we never had. I join the rest of the House in expressing our condolences to Elizabeth and their daughters on their sad loss. We shall never see his like again.

4.3 pm

Sir Marcus Fox (Shipley) : On behalf of parliamentary Back Benchers, may I say that we wish to be associated with all that has been said in sympathy for John Smith's wife and family. The burdens that we place on our leaders are sometimes misunderstood and not recognised, but we all know that, with the loss of John Smith, we have lost a great parliamentarian. His courtesy at all times will long be remembered.

4.4 pm

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford) : I rise on behalf of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. John Smith was one of our vice-presidents ; you are our president, Madam Speaker. John joined the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association at almost the first opportunity after he had been elected to the House and he was ever after a keen and enthusiastic supporter of our aims and activities. The proceedings and fortunes of the House are observed on a basis far wider than just this country. I know how much the Commonwealth parliamentarians will be feeling this shock today. The Commonwealth will mourn the loss of a great parliamentarian.

4.5 pm

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : My reflections today are necessarily personal rather than political because, throughout my adult life, I have had the privilege of calling John Smith my friend. We were students together at Glasgow university, we were struggling advocates at the Scottish Bar and we even climbed a few Scottish mountains together.

It seemed to John Smith's friends that he never failed at anything to which he set his hand. He could easily have reached the top of the legal profession. He led his party and he might well have led the nation. He was a devoted father and husband, and he derived great strength from the warm and loving embrace of his family.

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In his recreation, he was a fierce, if not particularly elegant, tennis player, but it was in the Scottish mountains that he found a great deal of satisfaction. He used them to restore him after the trials and tribulations of his life. It is typical of John Smith that he was well on the way to climbing all the Munros in Scotland. That success came about because he was a man of talent, but it also came about because he had an almost Calvinist application. He had an overwhelming sense of duty which was the product of his upbringing. His political beliefs were based on an unyielding Christian belief which was the firm foundation for all that he said and did. However, it was typical of the man that that Christian belief was never paraded. It can fairly be said of John Smith that he had all the virtues of a Scottish presbyterian, but none of the vices. For those of us who had the privilege to be his friends, some of the light has gone out of our lives. For his family, the sense of loss is incalculable.

4.7 pm

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Twenty-four years is a long time in politics. John Smith came into the House of Commons in 1970 along with a lot of others, some of whom have spoken today. I always had an idea that he would finish up on the Front Bench and that I would probably--almost certainly--still be on this one. I speak today because I come from a different wing of the party, yet we never had words in anger. It is incredible that throughout the whole of that period, we were able to remain friends.

Only a fortnight or three weeks ago, he gave me a message to read out at my mate Bob Cryer's funeral. It was a wonderful, glowing tribute and it would be wrong of me not to repay the tribute to Bob Cryer that John Smith gave me to read out.

Why are people so full of praise today for John Smith ? My guess is that it is because he was a person who could operate in this place--some can and some cannot. He understood it and he knew its moods. Sometimes it is like a church and on other occasions it is like a zoo. To get topsides of it, one must be able to change tack. On

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Tuesday, he did it again. When I spoke to him afterwards, I said, "You changed your question, didn't you John, because of what the Prime Minister had said ?" Smartly and deftly, he had moved ground. He had the ability to speak extemporaneously. He used to come to me on occasions and say, "Have you got any good jokes for my speech tomorrow ?" The sort of umbilical cord that stretched out from him to others was important in our movement. I laid bets on his opening the door at No. 10, and I have no doubt that he would have done so, without any question whatever.

In my opinion, he dragged the Labour party from the depths of despair to the pinnacles of power. No greater tribute could be paid to him today than if, instead of adjourning at this moment, we were to say, "John Smith, we are going to pass the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill unanimously today." That is what we should do in his memory.

4.10 pm

Madam Speaker : I do not need to stress that this is a sad day for the House of Commons. It is not just a sad day for John Smith's party, which he served with such distinction ; it is a sad day for all of us here at Westminster. He was a dedicated politician. He played a hard game when it was necessary, but, as the Prime Minister said, there was never any malice in his attacks. Looking across from this Chair, I was able to take an objective view of him. I sensed a good man. I knew he was a good man--I had known him a long time. His qualities were apparent to all parts of the Chamber.

I recall, as of course we all do, that it is some five years since his first serious illness. He fought back from that with all the courage which marked the whole of his life. His opponents as well as his colleagues hoped --indeed, they believed--that he had won through, and that must make it even harder for his wife and daughters. All that we in this House can do now is tell them that our hearts go out to them and their grief is shared by us all.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Four o'clock.

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