HL Deb 12 May 1994 vol 554 cc1647-54
The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do now adjourn. As Leader of the House, it is my sad duty today to pay tribute on behalf of Her Majesty's Government and of the House to the life of John Smith, to convey our sorrow and sympathies to his wife Elizabeth and to his family and to extend our deepest condolences to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and to all members of the party opposite on the loss of a man whose achievements in politics and public life were already great and whose loss at such an early age deprives his party and the country of the firm promise of greater achievement in the future.

As a parliamentarian, John Smith was a formidable adversary. He possessed a quick and forensic ability to test the strength of an argument. He had a formidable intellectual capacity to master a brief and his judgment and tactical awareness were the equal of any of his contemporaries. John Smith was also a man of great charm, of personal warmth and generosity, even in the face of adversity, and a man whose personal courage and conviction were admired by friend and foe alike. It is fair to say, I think, that politicians may not be held generally in the highest esteem at the moment, but John Smith was an exception. He was recognised by the public for what he was known to be by his colleagues in Parliament and in political life—honest, honourable in his dealings, and dedicated to serving the public interest as he saw best.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, and his colleagues will know the contribution which John Smith made during his all too brief tenure of the offices of leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition. For my own part, I knew John Smith first as an outstandingly able Minister, recognised by his elevation to the Cabinet at only 40, and then as an opponent whose talents I learnt fully to respect. During the past 20 years I have had the privilege of passing many enjoyable hours in his company. The last time I had the opportunity to talk to him at length was, ironically, when he and I travelled together to Willy Brandt's funeral.

This is a sombre occasion for us all and for the country. We have lost a man of rare qualities and, as a political opponent, I am privileged to do him honour. I beg to move that, as a mark of respect to the memory of the late John Smith, this House do now adjourn.

Moved, That the House do now adjourn.—(Lord Wakeham.)

Lord Richard

My Lords, I rise to support the Motion moved by the Leader of the House and to thank him from these Benches for the words that he has just used. We are grateful to him for what he said and for the sentiments that he expressed. The House will, I am sure, appreciate that this is for those of us who knew John Smith over a long period of years a particularly difficult occasion. It was not as if he had been ill for a long time or as if any of us could have foreseen his sudden death. It is for all of us a particularly cruel blow.

John Smith was the son of a Scottish headmaster, and brought up, as he was, in western Scotland, he exemplified in many ways all the virtues of his native land—integrity, commitment and compassion. He became involved in politics at an early age. He was called to the Bar in 1967 and took silk in 1983. As an advocate, he was at the top of his chosen profession. As a politician, his sudden death has removed the possibility forever now of his fulfilling his undoubted talent and capacity and, who knows, perhaps becoming our Prime Minister. For the party to which he gave his life, this is a dreadful blow. For those of us who knew him, worked with him and respected him deeply, the sense of shock and indeed of personal loss is almost insupportable.

There was about him an almost total absence of cynicism. He never pretended to be what he was not. Even in the last speech that he made, last night at a European dinner, those of us who heard him saw again the inner integrity of the man. He was what he seemed to be. There was no pretence, no dissembling. But if we have pain at the loss of a supremely effective party leader and a good friend, our sense of loss is as nothing compared with that which his family is now feeling. It is to them that our thoughts should primarily turn. He had what is sometimes rare these days for politicians —a very close and a very devoted family. He and his wife Elizabeth were very much a couple in the real sense of that word. She and their daughters will be devastated by today's news. Our hearts go out to them at this terrible time.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, perhaps I may say first that I know that my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead would have very much liked to have been here in order to pay tribute to John Smith. He was already in a train going to Birmingham to fulfil an engagement when he heard the news of John Smith's death and therefore was unable to do what he so much would have liked to have done; namely, to pay tribute to a friend and former colleague.

On behalf of all of us I would like to say how much our sympathy goes to his family, his wife and his daughters. After he had a first heart attack they must have known that he was in fact taking a great risk in continuing political life at the level at which he undertook it. It was a real sacrifice on their part and it must have been a cause of great anxiety. It may remind people how much the families of politicians—especially leading politicians—risk and how much they give up in supporting their husbands in a totally demanding career and one which gives all too little time for the fulfillment of family responsibilities and for the enjoyment of family life which was so obviously of great importance to John Smith.

I would like to say how much we sympathise with the Labour Party. It is a party which suffered a similar loss in earlier years of a great statesman at a time when the party greatly needed support. It will always be remembered in John Smith's name how far he led the party from what was a time of great difficulty and discouragement to a point at which everyone realised the recovered strength of the party and the contribution that it was able and would continue to make. Of course that will go on. But his work and contribution to the recovery of the party are an enormous tribute to the man and something for which his party must be extremely grateful to him.

Not only his party. Good parliamentary government requires excellent opposition as well as good government. John Smith was giving that leadership to create good opposition which we all greatly need. His place will no doubt be taken, but it will be difficult to take it to the same degree as he took it. Therefore, it is not only his party which will deeply mourn his loss; it is the country as a whole because we so badly need leadership of that quality throughout the whole of our parliamentary life.

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, I have been asked by our respected Convener to support this Motion on behalf of the Cross-Bench Peers. To the world outside, the House of Commons is often thought of as a place constantly in uproar, where Members are at each other's throats all the time. The truth is very different from that. The qualities that matter in the House of Commons, and I believe in this place too, are courage, resolution, fairness, integrity and also a sense of humour. I know from personal experience that John Smith had those qualities in abundance. With them he achieved not only the support of his own Benches but the respect of the whole House of Commons and also, I believe, of the country.

The death of the Leader of the Opposition in our Parliament is not just a loss to the Labour Party itself but to the whole nation. We have a great tradition in our country—an example which I believe we can give to other democracies —of Her Majesty's Government and Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Irrespective of party allegiance, John Smith was in a very real sense a Prime Minister in waiting and in that sense his death today matters to us all.

Edmund Burke is frequently quoted in this Chamber. In the course of the election in Bristol in 1780 his opponent died and Edmund Burke withdrew from the contest with the words: The worthy gentleman has, by his death, reminded us what shadows we are and what shadows we pursue". That is still true today. Our sympathy goes out not just to the Labour Party but in particular to John Smith's family, to the electors of Monklands East and to Elizabeth, his wife. He will be a great loss to Parliament and a great loss to our country.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

My Lords, on behalf of all the Bishops in the House, and indeed the entire Church of England, I too rise to pay tribute to John Smith. As we have already heard, he was a person of great integrity and wisdom. His sharpness of thought, wit, common sense and fundamental decency enriched our national life. He was passionately committed to this nation and to the possibility of building a society which was both prosperous and just. He was a Christian man whose faith underpinned his character and his vision.

Whenever I talked with him I was always struck by the freshness of his faith and his keen desire that the Churches should play their role fully within society. In a small book which he edited just a year ago called Reclaiming the Ground he wrote these words: We ought to approach our politics with a sense of optimism for the future. There is so much of good that can be done if we seize the opportunities which a modern world makes available". He was the kind of man who saw new possibilities and never gave up hoping and believing. We thank God for him today and deeply sympathise with Elizabeth, his wife, his daughters, his colleagues and his friends. I am sure that on this Ascension Day many would want to join with me in that ancient prayer: May he rest in peace and rise in glory".

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, I trust that the House will give me leave to add to the tributes that have been paid to John Smith. It seems to me, as I look around a House that is more crowded than I remember it being for a very long time, that the very presence of so many of your Lordships is in itself a silent tribute to the esteem in which John Smith was held in this House as well as in another place.

It is with a sense of overwhelming sadness that I rise to speak today on an occasion that I trusted would never happen in my lifetime as we see yet another of our leaders swept away so tragically before he had time to fulfil the great gifts and talents that he possessed.

Let me say on this occasion that I am certain that there are others who will take his place, but John Smith possessed all the qualities that would make a great Prime Minister. Other references have been made to his integrity, to which I can testify, and to his deep understanding of the British people. Perhaps he had that in greater measure because he was a Scotsman and therefore could embrace the whole of our islands with that amount of ease, as those of us who come from Wales similarly claim. He had that intuitive gift which men and women either have or they do not.

Further than that, he had not only integrity, but a great understanding and deep conviction. He knew where to draw the line. He stood by his convictions on several important issues and it is the gift of a leader of a party to know when he must stand firm on primary issues and when he should be flexible on those issues which are not of major concern. John Smith stood firm on the matter of Europe. His conviction that Britain's future lay with Europe stemmed from many years back and it was unshakeable. He put his fortune to the touch in the matter of democracy in the Labour Party—to stand or lose it all—and he won because his conviction was so strong that it carried the Labour Party with him. On the matter of devolution for Scotland, he had no doubts that there should be that change in our constitutional arrangements and he was ready to carry it through if he had the prospect of so doing. In all these matters, he had the essential qualities of a leader. He would have undoubtedly been among the best leaders that this country could have had.

Many years ago I wrote of him as a skilled negotiator with formidable talent, but he developed into much more than that. I brought him into the Cabinet in 1978 as one of three younger people of what was then the new generation from whom I believed that the leadership of the Labour Party would emerge—and indeed in his case, it did. I always felt that his calm judgment, his reasonable approach, the sense of proportion, which has been referred to, which he showed in his conduct, and his concern about public affairs eminently fitted him to lead our great party.

It seems hard now to believe that it is only two years since he became Leader of the Labour Party, for he established his authority so quickly. To me at any rate, for whom time passes so quickly, it seems a much longer period than that during which he has led us in a way that has commanded our respect and our support. He had, as all who knew him are aware, that drily humourous pawkiness that the Scots possess in full measure, but without the angularity that they sometimes have in expressing their opinion. His decisions, his decisiveness, his determination and his sense of humour all marked him out as a rounded man.

I was privileged to enjoy the personal hospitality of his family under their roof in Edinburgh. Our hearts today go out to Elizabeth and to his family in their great loss. He was the first among the present team of the talented new generation that has now taken over the leadership of our party, but our country can ill afford to lose a man of such excellence from our public life.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, after such eloquent tributes from such respected Members of your Lordships' House, it is with some fear and trepidation that I enter my own tribute to my long-standing friend John Smith.

I first met John when he came to us in the East Fife parliamentary constituency as a 22 year-old university student in the 1961 by-election. John was selected as the Labour candidate. He turned out in that election campaign (when I was first his meetings officer and then his transport officer) to be the most outstanding candidate in a field of outstanding candidates. His young girlfriend, Elizabeth, gave up her work to come and work full-time in that election campaign. That young vivacious courting couple captured the hearts of the electorate in that East Fife parliamentary constituency —and John Smith made his name.

It would have been a simple matter for John Smith to have said, "Well, I have done as much as I can here in this hopeless Labour seat of East Fife and therefore I will not stand again in case it damages my standing". John Smith did not say that. John Smith stayed with us until the 1970 general election, when, in John's own words, he had the "honour" to replace Peggy Herbison in another place. I am sure that Peggy, who thankfully is still with us, will today share our mourning of John's passing.

I had the honour to succeed John as the parliamentary candidate in East Fife and so I have known him over many years. I saw his marriage to Elizabeth and the celebration only last year of their silver wedding anniversary; and the birth of their three girls and their growing up into a wonderful family.

As you go in one of the great doors at St. Paul's a simple tribute to Christopher Wren reads: If you want to see his memorial, look around you". If you want to see John Smith's memorial, look at Elizabeth, look at the three girls, look at the Labour Party and look at what could have been.

I finish this brief tribute to a wonderful friend and colleague by quoting the Reverend Ernest Gordon, the author of the book, Miracle on the River Kwai, in words that were written in those notorious Japanese prison camps:

  • "What will I do when I am called to die?
  • Will I not say too soon my life has ended?
  • The years too quickly have gone by
  • With so little done of all that I intended.
  • There were so many things I'd hoped to try.
  • So many victories I had hoped to win
  • And lo the end approaches just as I
  • Was thinking of preparing to begin".
This country is denied the talents of John Smith, and I deeply regret that today.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will allow me heartily to endorse the tributes already paid to our late distinguished colleague the Leader of the Opposition and the messages sent to his widow, to his family and to his party. I had the privilege of having him as a professional colleague in the Faculty of Advocates in Scotland from 1967 onwards. He and I shared much in our background and religious convictions. I had the benefit of his help as a junior, I had to contend with the strength of his opposition as an opponent in court, and I had the benefit of his help as counsel when I was a judge of the Court of Session. As an advocate he was clear, penetrating, succinct, with an excellent judgment of the points in his case which were worthy of emphasis. His zest for work was such that, until quite a late stage in his career and notwithstanding the burdens he carried as a politician, he continued to practise al the Scottish Bar.

As the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates I had the privilege of presiding over the party that we gave for him when he became a member of the Cabinet of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, as Secretary of State for Trade. The whole faculty shared his delight on that appointment. I believe that, notwithstanding our political differences, my wife and I were honoured to be counted among his friends.

I had been looking forward to sharing with him on 15th June next, a great day in his Alma Mater the University of Glasgow, when he was to receive an honorary doctorate. Now that day will underline the loss sustained by the University of Glasgow in the early passing of such a distinguished graduate. I am sure that all members of the Faculty of Advocates, of which he was such a distinguished and loyal member, as well as all the people of Scotland, will share this deep sense of loss felt by every Member of your Lordships' House.

on Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at twenty-eight minutes before four o'clock.

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