John Smith from Ardrishaig: will go far: From the mists of west Scotland has emerged a political star, the product of hardship, long winters and the Gaelic temperament, writes Isabel Hilton

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In 1961, John Smith found himself on a platform listening to the results of the by-election he had just fought. East Fife was a hopeless seat for Labour and nobody expected Mr Smith to beat Sir John Gilmour. But fighting an unwinnable by-election was a rite of passage, the blooding of an embryonic politician who showed star potential. As the results were announced, Mr Smith realised to his extreme satisfaction that he had beaten the Liberal candidate into third place by 90 votes. He returned to Glasgow University like a conquering hero.

In Scotland that year there were the first mass protests against the installation of the US Polaris submarine base at Holy Loch, a movement that was to politicise thousands in that generation. Mr Smith did not take part. His politicisation was complete. It did not include unilateral nuclear disarmament.

There was no doubt in the minds of Mr Smith's university contemporaries that he was bound for the House of Commons and destined for high office. His ambitions were frank. Though he would not have admitted to No 10 Downing Street, he could hope to be Secretary of State for Scotland without exciting derision. So impressed was the Labour Party with him that he had first been invited to contest a seat in 1959. He consulted the rules and found he could not accept: he was not yet 21.

More than 30 years after his first parliamentary contest, the qualities his student contemporaries observed in him still seem to fit: ambitious, clever, controlled, a gifted debater, gregarious, though intolerant of people he thought were wasting his time, irrepressibly optimistic and, in Labour terms, right wing. 'When I was younger,' he was to say later, 'I was derided for being a moderate. I was called cautious, canny John, too prudent. Now my contemporaries at university who were revolutionaries are voting Conservative, but I haven't really changed what I believe in.'

He would clearly add consistency to the list; others have described it as a native conservatism. However defined, Mr Smith's beliefs and his manner of pursuing them are rooted in his past; as he tells it, he got his socialism, simply enough, from his father.

Archibald Leitch Smith was the son of a herring fisherman in the village of Tarbert on the shore of Loch Fyne in Argyll, in west Scotland. His health was not robust and he was not considered a likely candidate for the fishing. Perhaps as a result, he was the only one of the family's five children to make the journey first to Dunoon, to complete his secondary education, then to Glasgow University, to read English and history.

There, in the Twenties, he joined the Glasgow Student Labour Club and stuck with it through its most notable upheaval of the decade - a mass defection to the embryonic nationalist movement that was to become the Scottish National Party.

When he graduated, Archibald became a primary school teacher. 'I think he would have liked to be a journalist,' said his daughter, Annie, 'but teaching was a steady job.' He taught first on the island of Islay, where he met and married Sarah Cameron, a young woman from a Gaelic-speaking family in Dalmally in north Argyll. Sarah was a graduate of Edinburgh College of Art and, for a while, a commercial artist.

In September 1938 their first child was born. They called him, in the family tradition, after his paternal grandfather, John. A year later, Archibald was appointed headmaster of the small primary school in Ardrishaig, the next village along the Loch Fyne shore from Tarbert.

Time has not dealt kindly with Ardrishaig, but in the Fifties it was a busy port. It had steamer connections to Glasgow several times a day and the small puffers that carried cargo to the islands left from there. A stream of business and pleasure craft using the Crinan Canal began or ended their journeys in the little basin, and from the pier there was a constant traffic of small shipping. The town even had a hero, James Chalmers, commemorated in stone for a missionary career brought prematurely to an end in 1901 when he was killed and eaten in the South Seas.

The schoolhouse where the Smiths lived perches steeply above the main street and commands an impressive view over Loch Fyne. Archibald did his duty as elder of the Kirk and member of the Ardrishaig Vigilance and Improvements Association. His political teachings, according to his daughter, took more hold on his children than his religious views. Though the family were not well off, they lived comfortably.

John and his two younger sisters were all taught by their father. It was not, Mr Smith recalls, the most comfortable experience, as Archibald treated his son with exemplary strictness in class: 'You were expected to do well. It was always, 'Why weren't you top of the class?' In the end, it was easier just to be top of the class.'

Outside school, Ardrishaig was a small boy's heaven, even if the headmaster's son was never exactly out of the public eye. He taught his little sisters to ride their bikes and to swim. There was the pier to hang around on and the family dinghy, the Mary Joanne. There was swimming in Loch Fyne and mackerel fishing. There was a lively Gaelic musical tradition, encouraged by his mother, even if the spoken language had all but died in the district. The family took sedate holidays in Dalmally, or arranged house exchanges through a teachers' magazine.

At home, politics were discussed and the children were encouraged to speak their minds. 'We were given the freedom to think what we wanted,' says Annie, 'but not to do what we wanted.'

Socialism was not necessarily the natural condition of modest families in that part of Scotland. The Conservatives ruled, and if they were challenged it was by the Liberal remnant of the old Whig hegemony or, later, the SNP. Beneath that tradition was a history of land disputes, hardship and mass emigration. Mr Smith's ancestors had been touched by calamity in 1845, when the tenuous settlement of Allt Beithe, in the hills south of Tarbert, was all but wiped out by cholera. The only survivor, then a baby, was Archibald Leitch - John Smith's great grandfather.

For the Smith household, the fight for social justice that West Highland radicalism represented translated into a faith in the Labour Party. Archibald, according to his son, was 'known' as a Labour supporter. The family subscribed to the New Statesman, a symptom of intellectualism as well as

radicalism.

Archibald was not a member of the party: there was no branch in Ardrishaig, but this is perhaps not the whole explanation. He was a schoolmaster - a public servant and public figure. Party membership might have been one step beyond prudence. From his father's classroom, John Smith moved on to Lochgilphead secondary school, two miles along the coast. He continued to shine. He debated. He starred in the team that came third in the Scripture Union's Bible quiz. He wrote in the school magazine. His reward was to follow the route his father had taken - by steamer to Dunoon Grammar School.

Dunoon, tucked sedately on the coast just round the corner from Holy Loch, was a strait-laced little town that, with the coming of the steamships, had sprouted villas and boarding houses, tea-shops and a pier with a gilded dome, a cinema and several hotels with views over the water.

In John Smith's own telling of his life story, Dunoon Grammar has a high symbolic value. In this self-conscious narrative, equality of opportunity in Scotland's democratically minded culture meant that poor people could get good education, not that they could get rich. Getting rich was not discussed. Getting on, on the other hand, was fine. And schools such as Dunoon Grammar were the means of getting on.

The school has a good record: one current Conservative and three current Labour MPs were educated there, and among John Smith's contemporaries was William Stewart, now the Government's chief scientific adviser. But some of Mr Smith's old school friends think he has idealised the democratic case. The school was comprehensive in its admissions, but pupils of academic bent were educated quite differently from the less gifted. The not so clever children left by the time they were 15. Richer families used it a stepping stone to public schools. It was also heavily tradition- minded: all the boys were expected to join the cadet corps and there was heavy stress on academic excellence.

There was a substantial Highland contingent in the school, children who had left home at 14 to board with landladies. In John Smith's case, the landlady was a Mrs McGilp, who had a bungalow at the top of the town and whose husband announced the ferries at Dunoon pier.

One of his first encounters at Dunoon was with Robert McGlaughlan, a frail but clever boy a year older than himself, and already a Young Socialist. Mr Smith says he cannot remember how he joined the local Labour Party - a minority taste in Dunoon - but Mr McGlaughlan does. 'For some reason, the first thing I said to him was: 'Are you a socialist?' ' he recalls. 'And he said, 'Yes.' '

McGlaughlan and Smith canvassed busily in the town. They talked politics outside school and debated current affairs inside. The school debates, run by the English master, W W Murray, were well-attended events in which the pupils were taught the kind of civic self- confidence that Scots often lack. John Smith quickly became a debating star.

He progressed through school effortlessly. By the time he left Dunoon, he had his future mapped out: Glasgow University to read history then law, and a career in politics. He spent the summer before he went up to university working as a canvasser for the party in Scotland. Mr Smith was beginning to be noticed.

'There was never much ideological content in John's politics,' says Mr McGlaughlan. 'The Labour Party in Dunoon was a kindly affair, devoid of bitterness. I was quite shocked when I came up to Glasgow at how much more hatred there was.'

When Mr Smith arrived at Glasgow University in 1956, he thought it was paradise on earth. He fell in with a gifted generation that included Menzies Campbell, now Liberal Democrat MP for Fife North East; Donald McCormick, the broadcaster; Donald Dewar MP, Labour's front-bench spokesman on Scottish affairs; Alexander 'Derry' Irvine, now Lord Irvine; Jimmie Gordon, managing director of Radio Clyde; and Teddy Taylor, then on his way to becoming a Tory MP.

For these ambitious young men, the debates run by the students' union were the focus of university life. These were modelled on parliamentary debates and lasted most of the day. Each of the political clubs took part. Mr Smith, of course, joined the Labour Club and soon became its star in union debates as the member for the mythical constituency of Fyneside Boroughs.

He was twice in the team that won the Observer Mace - the debaters' Oscar - for Glasgow University. 'The gift of the gab was regarded as the key to a great future,' remarked a former fellow student, 'and the debating chamber was where you made your reputation.'

Another recalled: 'He was never an

orator, but he was a very good debater - at his best when responding to

interventions.'

Glasgow University Labour Club has never been a hotbed of radicalism. The students wore tweed jackets and ties, hair was short and beards neatly trimmed. In the left-right struggles in the Labour Party, the Glasgow students remained firmly on the right.

In the argument between the unilateralists and the Gaitskellites in the early years of Mr Smith's university career, he and his friends supported Gaitskell. 'It was remarkable,' says a friend of his, 'considering his views are very mod-

erate, that they were held so stron-

gly, with such passionate conviction.'

In other respects, too, it was a conventional student life. 'There was a lot of sitting around drinking and singing The Bonnie Earl o' Murray, if you know what I mean,' a friend recalls. Until Mr Smith met Elizabeth Bennett, a fellow student who was to become his wife, none of his contemporaries can recall any girlfriends. 'He spent his time in that gregarious, corporate, rather male society,' one remembers.

'Speaking as a Scotsman,' says another, 'I would say he was a classic Scotsman on the make: absolutely clear-headed about what the next move was. He was always able to see where the best door would open. It wasn't ruthless in the sense that he didn't carve anyone up to get what he wanted, but there was a core of steel to him.'

The only surprise is that it took until 1970 for Mr Smith to get into Parliament. In the meantime he graduated in law and worked as a solicitor in Glasgow for a year until deciding to read for the Bar. He still thinks of it as a risky thing to do: 'I had to decide whether I was going to stay a solicitor, because they offered me a partnership in the firm. I didn't really want to be a solicitor in Glasgow for ever and a day, so I decided to take the gamble and go to the Bar, which was quite a serious step.'

He had no money behind him and reading for the Bar meant giving up his job. But politics was a precarious business and he needed a profession. 'I wasn't a candidate in 1966,' he said, 'because I was going to the Bar and the important thing was to get there and make a success of it. I have never been crazed by politics. I would have been quite happy to be a lawyer.'

He had fought East Fife a second time in 1964 and, in fact, he did try for the safe seat of Rutherglen for the 1966 general election, but lost the selection to Gregor MacKenzie. However, an astute political bet netted him what he describes as a 'substantial' sum of money.

'It was a double bet. We discovered what I thought was an error by the bookmakers. They were giving evens in Conservative seats with a majority of under 5,000, but we thought there was no way Sir Fitzroy Maclean was ever going to lose Bute and North Ayrshire. So we put some money on that. Then I didn't like the notion of betting on Conservatives winning so we got 2:1 against John Macintosh winning Berwick and East Lothian. And we put the two together and did very well.'

The winnings helped to see him through his studies and in 1967 he was called to the Bar and got married. 'I sold my car to buy an engagement ring,' he says. He pauses. 'Well, I had to sell it anyway, actually . . . But the first thing I did was buy an engagement ring.'

He could, colleagues agree, have made a successful career at the Bar, but politics remained his primary ambition. Among the Labour machine men impressed by his talents was Dick Stewart, agent to Peggy Herbison, then MP for North Lanark. When Ms Herbison announced that she would retire in 1970, Mr Stewart was happy to see Mr Smith selected. That 1970 victory was a mere electoral formality.

At Westminster he was to be seen as another clever Edinburgh lawyer: prudent, effective, Presbyterian and short on humour. But Mr Smith is not that sort of Scotsman. Argyll is a mixture of outlawry, hardship and high Gaelic temperament - a place where emotions are not wasted, but sentiment is indulged. It is a culture informed by long winters and thin harvests, and it bred a sense of community that remains the emotional bedrock of John Smith's socialism.

Matthew Symonds, page 27

(Photograph omitted)

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