John Smith

ACROSS the Ness from the hotel policeman keep watch from the roof of the Eden Court Theatre where the Tory conference is in session. The Prime Minister is arriving shortly to bring this melancholy but oddly inspiring week in British politics to a conclusion.

It has been melancholy, of course, because of the cruel death of John Smith. In its grief the British political establishment has found a rare unity. Our adversarial system has the virtue of in the end producing a Yes or a No to any political question. Its defect is that its perpetual mutual slagging becomes arid. The prying eyes of television, and the eavesdropping radio microphones, have revealed also its petty, schoolboy side.

This week it has risen above these failings, and reminded the public that there is decency, and there are decent people, in politics. Of these John was certainly one. He was also a man of integrity and consistent principle.

There are other reasons why he was so well liked, of course. He was not malicious or rancorous, and even when he was cutting an opponent down to size his wit never quite extinguished a certain fellow feeling for his victim, an affection even. This truth about him was reflected in the tribute paid by the Prime Minister, and Menzies Campbell remarked that while he had the virtues of Scottish presbyterianism he had none of its vices.

Over the years I had the good fortune to meet John from time to time. His public image was of moderation, shrewdness, and caution. What was not so obvious, although it could be inferred from his rhetorical gifts of irony and wit, was his convivial nature. He was, quite simply, great company, and liked nothing better than a lively night of discourse and argument. One night in the late seventies he sat up with us over dinner, amusing and stimulating the company. Then, towards midnight, he went off to read his ministerial boxes. The political life, if lived to the full, requires enormous stamina.

For journalists, he expressed an amiable lack of respect. We were just word-spinners, he would say, or, to quote de Gaulle, scribblers. The last time I spoke to him in detail was in the summer of last year. He gave me an hour or so of a Sunday evening, an act of considerable generosity in the context of an overcrowded diary, to help me with a book about Scottish politics.

I discovered him in casual clobber surrounded by the Sunday papers. Some of them carried the usual barbs, and I asked them if they were not hurtful. Not at all, he said, and observed that because of the increased size of newspapers too many people were being asked to write too much. He quoted Katherine Hepburn’s dictum: ”I don’t care what anybody says about me as long as it isn’t true.”

That night I was able to get down on tape his recollections of the devolution years. Callaghan had appointed Michael Foot and John Smith to save the legislation, initiated by Wilson and diluted by Willie Ross, from complete collapse. That they almost succeeded was a tribute to John’s already considerable parliamentary skills.

The Callaghan Government staggered from crisis to crisis with no majority at all, dependent on Liberals, Nationalists and Ulster Unionists, and it is generally agreed that few subsequent administrations have matched it for parliamentary craft.

The reason he saw me, I think, was not just because of his good nature but because he thought it important that he should recall the events of these years so that they could be got down on paper. Out of his experience came a commitment to devolution that was fierce and personal, and for him it was unfinished business. I hope the quotations from him which I set down will be of assistance to others trying to make sense of these years.

Like many people I was touched by the sincerity of the tribute paid to him by Ian Lang here, and it says much for the quality of our political life that the Scottish Tories and the other parties mourned him with such eloquent dignity.

Today the conference has been getting back to normal, but the mood remains subdued. Partisanship will return; politics, which is a means of resolving conflict without the resort to barbaric means, can hardly avoid it, and should not do so. But our brief holiday from personalised rhetoric may have taught us something of more lasting value.

Inverness, often vilified for its architecture, looks very handsome in the sunshine. Daffodils bloom on the riverbank. The policemem standing on the roof of the Ness Theatre strike a discordant note, but their presence reminds us of the more brutal consequences of political failure and of how we should value our democratic politics rather than constantly vilify those who practise them.

John Smith was denied supreme office; he escaped also the unpopularity that seems nowadays its inescapable consequence. To his family one cannot offer much consolation except perhaps the thought that his example of decency, his integrity, and his relish in the civilised discourse of democracy will remain an inspiration.