John Smith: Twenty-five years on

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The Labour leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack, twenty-five years ago this month, on May 12th 1994. Had he lived, he would now be eighty. He would also, no doubt, be remembered a former Prime Minister, rather than an Opposition leader whose tragic premature death prevented him from getting to the top.

Smith only led the Labour Party for two years. I don’t recall much popular excitement about his election as leader in July 1992. The contest against the perfectly decent left-winger Bryan Gould (who subsequently returned to his native New Zealand) was a foregone conclusion and a dull affair.

There was also some feeling that after losing for the fourth time in a row in April 1992, Labour might never win again. After all, if Labour couldn’t win during a Tory recession when could it win? Surely the economy would have recovered by 1996 or 1997 ensuring yet another win for the Tories? Satirical show Have I Got News For You… meanwhile pointed out, Labour was electing the very man whose tax plans had arguably led to their recent defeat in the first place.

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Such fears proved misplaced. Simply by electing Smith, Labour had made an important step towards recovery. In the month of Smith’s election as leader, Labour gained a poll lead over the Tories which it would maintain for the next decade. The April 1992 election result in fact turned out to be the last Tory General Election win achieved until 2015.

John Smith is sometimes accused of laziness and complacency: of being happy to let the Tories lose the election for themselves. In fact, during the Major years, this was the perfect tactic to adopt. Within months of their victory, the Major Government virtually disintegrated amidst a sea of divisions over Europe, sleaze allegations, and perhaps worst, the total economic incompetence exhibited by Prime Minister John Major and his Chancellor Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday in September 1992. Labour had double digit poll leads from the autumn onward. Hopelessly divided and weak, torn apart by self-inflicted wounds, the Major Government never recovered.

This is not to deny John Smith any credit for Labour’s recovery. Although he did not launch any “New Labour” style revolution, he was certainly not lazy either. For one thing, he proved the finest performer as Opposition leader in the Commons of the post-war era. Only Harold Wilson in 1963-64, William Hague in 1997-2001 or perhaps Tony Blair in 1994-97 have come close to matching him. “No wonder we live in a country where the Grand National doesn’t start and hotels fall into the sea!” he derided Major in 1993 (referring to two recent news events which, of course, the hapless John Major, for once, could not really be blamed for). More seriously, he attacked “the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government” after Black Wednesday.

Then there was the One Member One Vote reform to end the union block vote in autumn 1993. Smith privately planned to resign if the party voted “no”.  They did not, partly thanks to  a spirited Conference defence of the OMOV proposals from John Prescott. As it turned out, this would ensure Prescott would defeat Smith’s Number Two Margaret Beckett in the then entirely unforeseen Deputy Leadership contest the following year.

Ultimately, Smith’s strength was a self-assurance which both his predecessors the terminally un-telegenic Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock as well as his successors Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all lacked. True, the party experienced a huge surge in support following Tony Blair’s election as leader and a decisive move to the right for the party. But, in retrospect, Labour was already clearly heading for victory under John Smith. Maybe not the 179 seat majority achieved by New Labour but a substantial win nevertheless. There was no need for the creation of New Labour or the campaign to win over the Murdoch press. Labour had a 20% lead over the Tories in May 1994.

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Counter-factual history is a risky business. Would the Blair-Brown rivalry have taken new form in a Smith Cabinet? Would the Tories have fared well enough in 1997 for Michael Portillo to escape the humiliating loss of his seat and thus succeed Major instead of Hague?  Would Blair, Brown, Cameron and May still have become Prime Minister anyway? Would the Good Friday Agreement have still happened? The 2001 and 2005 Labour victories? Devolution? Kosovo? Afghanistan? Iraq? Brexit?

We will, of course, never know these things. While I would not wish to romanticise Smith’s leadership (every Labour leader before or since has, after all, been accused of “betraying socialism”. Smith, unfairly or not, would doubtless been accused of this just the same, had he lived) there seems little doubt that John Smith would have led Britain into the 21st century had he survived.

His death remains a great tragedy. The question of what a Smith-led Britain would have turned out like remains a fascinating mystery, twenty-five years on.

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A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s book review

A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £25

Some might think it a bit soon to be writing histories of the 1990s. Perhaps they should think again. This volume, the third and final part of Alwyn W. Turner’s trilogy takes Britain up to the General Election of June 2001. It was a sleepy campaign, enlivened only by the celebrated “Prescott Punch” when the Deputy PM John Prescott was filmed punching a voter.

Turner argues the 2001 election saw Britain winding down after the industrial unrest of the 1970s (chronicled in his earlier Crisis? What Crisis?) and the battles and mass unemployment of the 1980s (detailed in his second volume Rejoice! Rejoice!). 2001 was at any rate still a considerable time ago. E-readers, iPods, the Iraq War and Credit Crunch were still in the future. But the book starts with Thatcher’s fall in November 1990. Twenty-four years ago, this is definitely the stuff of history.

In 1990, Britain was preparing to go to war over Kuwait (a much less controversial war than the Iraq conflict which began twelve years later) as the nation licked its wounds from the ordeal of Thatcherism. It is arguable that Britain has not fully recovered from her leadership even today and certainly the Tory Party don’t seem to have done so.

Mrs Thatcher’s successor was John Major who Turner reminds us, was at the time the youngest Prime Minister of the 20th century. We have got used to younger leaders since. Major was 46, Blair who would succeed him would be 44. Cameron in 2010 was younger still and all three major party leaders today are under 50. Major, at any rate did what no Tory leader has achieved in the 22 years since, winning his party an overall majority in the General Election of April 1992. Thereafter, it proved to be a very bad decade to be a Tory.

Major’s economic record was much better than Thatcher’s. But he was a poor leader and after the election win the party went into freefall, alienating any group who might have potentially supported them. The number of Tory MPs fell by more than half during John Major’s leadership of the party between 1990 and 1997.

Had he not died, another John, John Smith would surely have won power in 1997. Sadly, we will never know how a Smith premiership might have turned out (Turner is certainly harsh on the Blair Government) and it will remain forever one of the great pondering points of post-war party politics.

This isn’t just about politics though, far from it. As before, Turner covers seemingly every aspect of British life in the decade including Lad Culture, the comedy scene, the recovery of the British film industry, the rise of Britpop to the death of Diana, in massively comprehensive detail.

I wouldn’t share all his emphasises. Much as I love the sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey, Turner quotes from it a bit too much. It is odd also that he devotes time to mediocre TV offerings like Waiting For God and Root Into Europe too while never mentioning memorable dramas House of Cards or GBH. I wouldn’t have described Alan Rickman as “fresh from his triumph in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves” in 1999 either. The film came out in 1991, eight years before the point  Rickman was touted as a possible London Mayoral candidate.

(For the record, Michael Foot became Labour leader in 1980 not 1981. And William Hague was never the youngest Cabinet Minister of the 20th century. Harold Wilson was only 31 when he was appointed by Attlee in 1947).

But these are minor quibbles in a book spanning well over 600 pages. Alwyn W. Turner has triumphed yet again. His three volumes on the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties should be required reading for all students of popular culture, politics and history during the period between the grinning smiles of the grumpy bachelor Mr. Heath and that nice Mr. Blair.

The best (Labour) Prime Ministers we never had

Who should have been Prime Minster but never got the chance?

(A Tory list is to follow shortly!)

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Hugh Gaitskell

(Life: 1906-1963. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1950-51. Labour leader: 1955-1963)

The case for: With the exception of Neil Kinnock, no post-war politician has done the hardest job in British politics (Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition) for as long as Hugh Gaitskell did: over seven years. A youthful Chancellor during Attlee’s last days, Gaitskell had already made an enemy of the unofficial leader of the party’s Left, Nye Bevan. Always a right-winger in the party, Gaitskell struggled to prevent full blown civil war both before and after their heavy 1959 General Election defeat despite a tearful conference address in which he pledged to “fight and fight again” to save the party he loved. Tragically, just as Labour seemed to be finally pulling together, Gaitskell suddenly fell ill and died in early 1963. His successor Harold Wilson, boosted by Tory chaos after the Profumo Affair, led Labour back into power in October 1964. Many, particularly acolytes like George Brown and Roy Jenkins felt it should have been Hugh. Or failing that, them.

The case against: To be fair, the public never loved Gaitskell. He led Labour to defeat in 1959 and might have done again in 1964. As an adulterer himself (he was having an affair with James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s wife – some even suspected Gaitskell was poisoned by the KGB) he might have lacked moral authority during the Tories’ Profumo sex scandal. Wilson himself, indeed, only won power himself very narrowly after his election as leader prompted a surge in Labour popularity. Would Gaitskell have done the same?

The verdict: We will never know.

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Roy Jenkins

(Life: 1920-2002. Home Secretary 1965-1967. 1974-1976. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1967-1970. EEC President: 1977-1981. SDP leader: 1982-1983)

The case for: Jenkins’ spell as Home Secretary must rank as one of the most successful ministries ever. In just a few short years, he oversaw the abolition of capital punishment, ended the death penalty, legalised homosexuality and liberalised the abortion and divorce laws. Few politicians changed British life as much as he did.

The case against: With his posh manner, liking for the fine things in life and speech impediment, “Woy” Jenkins was often described as “nature’s old Etonian” even though unlike his colleagues Michael Foot, Denis Healey and Tony Benn, he was actually from genuine working class stock, in fact a Welsh mining community. But his position as a right-wing pro-European was unfashionable at the time. He scored poorly in the 1976 leadership contest following Wilson’s resignation and after a spell as President of the EEC returned as a founder member of the breakaway Social Democratic Party in 1981. The SDP really did seem set to win power for a period in 1981, but a combination of internal feuding, Thatcher’s Falklands victory and an unfair electoral system saw them perform badly in 1983, scoring almost as many votes as Labour but scarcely any seats. In old age, Jenkins advised Tony Blair on electoral reform  as a Lib Dem peer (Blair ignored him) and wrote numerous biographies of historical figures such as Gladstone and Asquith.

The verdict:  He never led Britain but undoubtedly changed the nation more than many who have.

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Denis Healey.

(Born: 1917. Defence Secretary: 1964-1970. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1974-1979. Deputy Labour leader: 1981-1983).

The case for: Healey was a familiar figure on TV in the Seventies and Eighties, famed not only for his distinctive eyebrows and sense of humour but also for his formidable intellect, debating power and competence. An ex-communist and (like Jenkins) a Second World War veteran, Healey oversaw the British military disengagement “East of Suez”  in the Sixties and endured a rocky ride as Chancellor during the 1976 IMF Crisis, famously turning his car away from the airport where he was planning a conference trip abroad when the crisis grew too severe. In fact, the loan was later recognised as unnecessary and due to a treasury error. After Labour’s 1979 defeat, many were astonished when the elderly, scruffy and un-telegenic left winger Michael Foot beat the only slightly younger but far more popular Healey for the Labour leadership in 1980. Did the members planning to defect to the SDP vote for Foot in the hope of strengthening their cause? A few votes would have made all the difference. At any rate, Foot, though a decent and highly intellectual man proved a disastrous leader. The party split, the new SDP rejecting Labour’s new anti-nuclear and anti-EEC positions. Healey himself fought off a serious left-wing challenge for the Deputy leadership from Tony Benn in 1981. Both Labour and the SDP performed disastrously in the 1983 election. But Healey, to his credit, never deserted Labour.

The case against: Healey would have almost certainly fared better as Labour leader than Foot did after 1980 and may well have prevented the damaging SDP split. But whether even he could have prevented Margaret Thatcher being returned in the post-Falklands 1983 election (winning a majority of 144) is open to question. Particularly as Healey could sometimes be quite gaffe-prone himself during election campaigns, accusing Thatcher of “glorifying in slaughter” in 1983 and suggesting the Russians wanted a Labour victory before the 1987 contest.

The verdict: The best Prime Minister we never had? Perhaps. Lord Healey has now outlived virtually all of his ex-colleagues and rivals. He is ninety-six.

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John Smith

(Life: 1938-1994. Labour leader: 1992-1994).

The case for: Labour was at a very low ebb indeed when John Smith was elected leader in July 1992. Labour had just suffered her fourth defeat, this time during a recession. Many doubted Labour would ever win again. As leader, Smith projected an air of competency which Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock had always lacked. Though his election as leader generated less excitement than Blair’s did in 1994, his strong often witty Commons performances, his success in abolishing the union block vote and the total Tory collapse after Black Wednesday, the pit closures, Back to Basics, the Maastricht Tory civil war and Tory sleaze made a Labour victory in 1996 or 1997 inevitable. His sudden death following a heart attack in May 1994 triggered a period of genuine mourning.

The case against: As the architect of Labour’s unpopular tax plans, Shadow Chancellor Smith is sometimes blamed for Kinnock’s 1992 election defeat. He was also accused of being too laidback as leader and effectively hoping victory would fall into his lap. However, despite no New Labour-esque attempts to woo business or the press, in 1994 Smith’s strategy seemed to be working.

The verdict: The Tory disintegration was so total under John Major that had Smith lived it is almost inconceivable that he would not have become Prime Minister. Had he lived, he would now be seventy-five.

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David Miliband

(Born: 1965. Foreign Secretary: 2007-2010).

The case for: Despite being the more experienced, better known and older of the two Miliband brothers, David narrowly lost the 2010 leadership contest to his brother Ed despite winning more votes from MPs and party members.

The case against: Although probably better on TV than his brother, David has endured image issues too (notably the “Banana Incident”) and lacked the killer instinct to take a stance for or against Gordon Brown at critical times in government. But ultimately his Blairism and (like Hilary Clinton in 2008) his support for the Iraq War and somewhat arrogant manner probably cost him victory.

The verdict: Unproven. Ed Milband seems neither as bad as his detractors say, nor his brother as good. And with David Miliband still under fifty, he could yet make a comeback. True, he’s not an MP. But then neither is Boris Johnson (who is the same age). The tragedy is that as brothers neither can easily serve under the other.