John Smith (UK politician)

John Smith (UK politician)

Infobox Politician
honorific-prefix = The Right Honourable
name = John Smith

imagesize = 165px
office = Leader of the Opposition
term_start = 18 July 1992
term_end = 12 May 1994
predecessor = Neil Kinnock
successor = Margaret Beckett
office2 = Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer
term_start2 = 12 June 1987
term_end2 = 18 July 1992
predecessor2 = Roy Hattersley
successor2 = Gordon Brown
office3 = Secretary of State for Trade
term_start3 = 4 June 1978
term_end3 = 3 May 1979
predecessor3 = Edmund Emanuel Dell
successor3 = John Nott
constituency_MP4 = Monklands East
Lanarkshire North (1970-1983)
majority4 = 11,747 (37.7%)
term_start4 = 18 June 1970
term_end4 = 12 May 1994
predecessor4 = Margaret Herbison
successor4 = Helen Liddell
birth_date = birth date|1938|9|13|df=y
birth_place = Ardrishaig, Argyll, Scotland
death_place = London, England
death_date = death date and age|1994|05|12|1938|09|13|df=y
restingplace = Iona
party = Labour Party
religion =

John Smith QC (13 September 1938–12 May 1994) was a Scottish politician who served as leader of the Labour Party from July 1992 until his sudden and unexpected death from a heart attack on 12 May 1994.

Early life

John Smith was born in Dalmally, the son of a Headmaster, and grew up in Ardrishaig in Argyll and Bute. He joined the Labour Party in 1956. He attended Dunoon Grammar School (Dunoon, Cowal), lodging in the town with a landlady, going home only during the holidays, before enrolling at the University of Glasgow where he studied History from the Autumn of 1956 to 1959, and then Law, from 1959 to 1962. Having trained and indeed practised (for a year) as a solicitor, Smith was later elected to the Faculty of Advocates, and later to the United Kingdom Parliament.

While still at University, in 1962, Smith, with Donald Dewar, won "The Observer" Mace debating championship. After his death, this was renamed the John Smith Memorial Mace in his honour.

Member of Parliament

Smith first stood as a Labour parliamentary candidate at a by-election in 1961 in the East Fife constituency, and contested that seat again in the 1964 General Election. At the 1970 general election he was elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for North Lanarkshire. He became a QC in 1983, the year that the constituency became Monklands East. In 1971 for the only time in his parliamentary career, he defied the Labour whips and voted in favour of entry to the EEC, along with Roy Hattersley and David Owen.

In government

In October 1974, Harold Wilson offered him the post of Solicitor General for Scotland. Smith turned it down. Instead, he was made a Under-Secretary of state at the Department of Energy. In December 1975 he was made a Minister of State. When James Callaghan became Prime Minister, Smith became a Minister of state at the Privy Council Office. He piloted the highly controversial devolution proposals for Scotland and Wales through the House of Commons. His handling of this impressed Callaghan, and in November 1978, when Edmund Dell retired, Smith was appointed as Secretary of State for Trade. He served in that post until the 1979 General Election, becoming the youngest member of the cabinet.

Shadow Cabinet

In the early 1980s Smith was Shadow Energy Secretary. He acted as Roy Hattersley's campaign manager for the party leadership election in October 1983 and after serving a year as Shadow Employment Secretary, was Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry between 1984 and 1987.

Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

John Smith was appointed Shadow Chancellor by Neil Kinnock in June 1987 after Party's General Election defeat. However, he suffered a heart attack whilst Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer on 9 October 1988 and was forced to spend three months away from Westminster to recover. On that occasion, he had complained of chest pains the night before, and had to be persuaded to cancel a flight to London so he could go to Hospital for a check up. He was examined at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary by an ECG. The doctor who examined him said "Whatever it is, we don't think it is your heart". Then Smith suffered collapsed whilst still in hospital. He left eleven days later and made a complete recovery.

Smith made modifications to his lifestyle by going on a 1,000 calorie diet, cutting down on rich foods and fine wines, giving up smoking and taking up "Munro bagging" and by the time of his death he had succeeded in climbing 108 of the 277 Scottish Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet above sea level at the summit). His weight dropped from 15 stone 5 pounds (98 kg) at the time of the first heart attack, to 12 stone 10 pounds (81 kg) when he returned to Parliament on 23 January 1989.

Despite a quiet, modest manner, and his politically moderate stance, he was a witty, often scathing speaker. Smith was named as Parliamentarian of the year twice; the first time in November 1986 for his performances during the Westland controversy, during which Leon Brittan resigned and the second was in November 1989 for taking Nigel Lawson to task over the state of the economy. Smith made two notably witty attacks on Lawson in 1989. On 7 June he sang the theme tune for the soap Neighbours at the dispatch box, lampooning the differences between Lawson and the Prime Minister's adviser, Sir Alan Walters, who was critical of Lawson's policies and who Thatcher refused to sack. Then on 24 October he made another scathing attack on the differences. Two days later, Lawson resigned, followed shortly afterwards by Sir Alan.

Leader of the Opposition

Following Labour's fourth successive defeat at the 1992 general election, Neil Kinnock resigned as leader and John Smith was elected Labour leader.

In September 1992, he made his maiden speech as party leader, about the Government's ERM debacle eight days earlier, saying that John Major was "The devalued Prime Minister of a devalued Government". At the party conference he referred to Major and Norman Lamont as being the Laurel and Hardy of British politics.

In a June 1993 debate, Smith again savaged the Conservative Government, saying that under John Major's premiership, "The man with the non-midas touch is in charge. It is no wonder that we live in a country where the Grand National does not start and hotels fall into the sea". During the same debate, Smith referred to a recent Government defeat in the Newbury by-election, a poor showing in the local elections, and a subsequent Cabinet reshuffle by saying that, "If we were to offer that tale of events to the BBC Light Entertainment Department as a script for a programme, I think that the producers of "Yes Minister" would have turned it down as hopelessly over the top. It might have even been too much for "Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em"". He also performed very well in a vote of confidence in the Conservative government in July 1993.

Despite his despatch box successes, (Smith was always more effective in the House of Commons than on Platforms), Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were, under Smith's leadership, restless and anxious in private that the party had adopted a "one more heave" approach and was overly cautious in tackling the legacy of "tax and spend". During his brief time as leader of the Labour Party he abolished the trade union block vote at Labour party conferences, and replaced it with "one member one vote" at the 1993 party conference and committed a future Labour government to establishing a Scottish Parliament, a policy which was followed through by his successors (most notably his close friend Donald Dewar) after his death. It was also during his time as leader, that the Labour party gained a significant lead in the polls over the Conservatives.


On the evening of 11 May 1994, John Smith made a speech at a fundraising dinner at Park Lane Hotel with around 500 people present, saying famously "The opportunity to serve our country - that is all we ask". The following morning, at 8.05am, whilst in his Barbican flat, Smith suffered a massive heart attack. His wife phoned an ambulance and he was rushed to Saint Bartholomew's Hospital where he died at 9.15am on 12 May 1994 having never regained consciousness. Only two weeks before his death, on 28 April, Smith had visited the same accident and emergency department to campaign against its proposed closure. The very doctor who served as his tour guide Mike Besser, two weeks later tried, desperately and unsuccessfully, to save Smith's life. His death came at a turbulent time politically, and it was very likely that had he lived longer, he would have become Prime Minister at the next general election. In response to his death, John Major made a fitting tribute in the House of Commons to Smith, culminating in the now well known line, that John Smith "would share a drink: sometimes tea, sometimes not tea". [ [ YouTube - Labour leader John Smith Dies, May 1994] ]

On 20 May 1994, after a funeral in Cluny Parish Church, Edinburgh attended by 900 people and after which 3,000 people lined the streets, John Smith was buried in a private family funeral on the island of Iona, at the sacred burial ground of Reilig Odhráin, which is said to contain the graves of Scottish, Irish and Norwegian kings. [] On 14 July his memorial service was attended in Westminster Abbey by over 2,000 people.

Following Smith's death, the Labour Party renamed its party headquarters in Walworth Road "John Smith House" in his memory.


Ironically, for someone who was on the Gaitskellite wing of the party, John Smith has become an iconic figure for Labour's left-wing since his death, because of his perceived traditionalist approach and the contrasts between his leadership and those of Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair. This perception has also arose as many on the Labour left have argued that the party had swung too far to the right under Blair's leadership.

John Smith's biographer, Mark Stuart, claimed that Smith could have won Labour a Parliamentary victory in 1997 on a similar scale to that achieved by Tony Blair due to the combination of the Black Wednesday debacle and ongoing Conservative divisions over Europe between 1992 and 1997; however, Stuart argues that the lack of a "Blair effect" would have meant that the Conservative Party would have held slightly over 200 seats in the House of Commons, leaving the Conservatives in a position closer to Labour in 1983 than to the actual Conservative result in 1997. [ Stuart, M. in Brack, D. and I. Dale (editors) (2003)"Prime Minister Portillo and other things that never happened", Politico's Publishing ]

Personal life

John Smith married Elizabeth Bennett on 5 July 1967. They had three daughters. Elizabeth Smith was created Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill in 1995. His daughter, Sarah Smith, is Washington correspondent for Channel 4 news.

Further reading



NAME= Smith, John
SHORT DESCRIPTION= British politician
DATE OF BIRTH= 1938-09-13
PLACE OF BIRTH= Ardrishaig, Argyll, Scotland
DATE OF DEATH= 1994-05-12
PLACE OF DEATH=London, England

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