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John Smith (UK politician)

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The Rt. Hon. John Smith QC MP, Leader of the Labour Party

The Right Honourable John Smith QC (September 13, 1938 - May 12, 1994) was a British politician who served as leader of the Labour Party from July 1992 until his unexpected death from a heart attack in May 1994.

Biography

Born in Dalmally, Scotland, he went to school in Dunoon before attending the University of Glasgow where he studied law. While at University he won the Observer Mace debating championship. After his death, this was renamed the John Smith Memorial Mace in his honour. He worked as a barrister before entering parliament for North Lanarkshire in 1970.

In the Labour government of the 1970s, Smith piloted the highly controversial devolution proposals for Scotland and Wales through the House of Commons. From 1978 until the government fell in 1979 he served as Secretary of State for Trade.

Despite his quiet, modest manner, and his politically moderate stance, he was a witty, often scathing speaker. He suffered a heart attack in 1988, while Shadow Chancellor, and lost a lot of weight in order not to risk further problems. His 'Shadow Budget' at the start of the 1992 general election was subsequently criticised as having contributed to Labour's surprise defeat, although it did not prevent him being elected to succeed Neil Kinnock as leader.

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". It was also during his time as leader, that the Labour party gained a significant lead in the polls over the Conservatives. He also committed a future Labour government to establishing a Scottish Parliament, a policy which was carried out by his successors (most notably his close friend Donald Dewar) after his death.

His sudden and untimely death made way for young hopeful Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair. John Smith was buried on the holy island of Iona, special permission having already been obtained. Following Smith's death, the Labour Party renamed its then party headquarters in Walworth Road to John Smith House in his memory.

Smith's death - although he had suffered a serious heart attack in 1988 he was widely seen as fully recovered - caused an emotional convulsion that, in a small way, prefigured the outpouring of grief that followed the equally unexpected death of Diana, Princess of Wales three years later. Partly as a result a truthful discussion of Smith's policy and legacy has been difficult to hear in the following years.

Smith was a traditional figure of the Labour right and, as such, was seen by many as a conservative leader. 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".

Since Blair became leader Smith has become an icon of Labour hard left because of his traditionalist approach and the contrast between his leadership and that of Blair. The question of whether Smith could have led the Labour Party to an electoral victory of the scale Blair did remains, of course, moot.

Quote

  • "The opportunity to serve our country - that is all we ask."—from his speech to a Labour fundraising dinner, May 11, 1994 (the day before his death).


Preceded by:
Edmund Emanuel Dell
Secretary of State for Trade
1978–1979
Succeeded by:
John Nott
Preceded by:
Neil Kinnock
Leader of the British Labour Party
1992–1994
Succeeded by:
Tony Blair

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