Sir Cyril Smith: Idiosyncratic and larger-than-life Liberal politician who never shied away from falling out with his own party
Saturday 04 September 2010
Neither Liberals nor Liberal Democrats have much of a record winning seats from Labour in the North of England.
Cyril Smith who has died at the age of 82, was a great, if not always shining, exception. But "Big Cyril" (the title of his autobiography), was comprehensively untypical of his party.
Liberal Democrats win seats in the West of England, the Scottish extremities and latterly south-west London – doing so invariably from the Conservative Party. They are polite, assiduous, earnest, given to symposia, pamphlets and structured discussion. Often useful, rarely exciting, they lack panache and overflow with application. Personal differences within this quiet party are usually discreet, offering little sauce to their plain but nourishing fare of useful policy.
Cyril Smith, MP for Rochdale from 1972-92, was a one-man antithesis to all that. When Paddy Ashdown brilliantly reconciled the resentful MP who had campaigned against him for party leader with the title "Spokesman for the North of England", he recognised that Devolution was one party policy which the wholly autonomous Smith embodied. He was not a bad team player; for him the team barely existed. Physical characteristics caused him much suffering, but they were part of his legend. Enduring a glandular condition which left him with a 75-inch waist and weighing 29 stone, he turned it valiantly to account. Nobody was going to get his name wrong or hand him their hat. He was universally recognised and generally liked by a public which couldn;t tell the loyal and dedicated Menzies Campbell and Don Foster apart.
He had another, less remarked-upon personal cross. Illegitimate when that mattered, he was brought up in backstreet poverty; and his battle to succeed in a modest business (as a spring manufacturer with a company finally sold for £200,000), then in local and national politics, was heroic. The sour and little-minded aspects of Smith have to be set against the cruelty of his start in life. But according to local accounts, he won his remarkable 1972 by-election victory in supposedly safe Labour Rochdale by unfastidious means.
Born in that town (home of the Co-op, and John Bright's home base) in 1928, Smith had been a Labour man (though a Young Liberal first) since 1950: as Councillor, Alderman and Mayor. Having achieved which office, he resigned (over rent increases) in 1966, a bad year for Labour. He had also been agent to the Labour MP, Jack McCann, and was thought to know of his cancer. Attacks on McCann's alleged neglect of his duties from someone who would become a nine per cent voter in divisions, were not attractive.
But Smith, like the hedgehog of the fable, knew one big thing – what Rochdale wanted. And he operated as a blatant but astute populist, opposing economically rational rent increases as part of the same populist self- projection by which he advocated hanging. He wasn't a lah-di-dah London politician, he wasn't. And over the years, he would quarrel noisily with his party's polite and embarrassed leadership.
He would be contemptuous of politics, calling the Commons "a daft, end-of-the-pier charade" within days of his election; but over 20 years, marked by resignations and threatened resignations, he stayed. Successful given his formidable organisation talents, as Chief Whip from 1974-76, he resigned and talked withdrawal from parliament when David Steel became party leader in 1976, defeating Smith's choice, the rebarbative John Pardoe.
Having warned shrewdly against Jeremy Thorpe's dalliance with Heath in 1974 and actually approaching Jim Callaghan in March 1977 about creating a centre party, in September 1977 he threatened resignation again – against the Lib-Lab pact! Not surprisingly when the SDP emerged, (middle class, lah-did-dah, also a protégé of the despised Steel), another row ensued. He would finally accept the link, but acknowledged the earlier memorable view that "the SDP should have been strangled at birth".
Many of Smith's causes as a private member were creditable, born of his practical knowledge of small business and local government, the notion of a state-owned building society, retention of county boroughs, something urged during the great Heath/Peter Walker futility of local government reorganisation, opposition to the closed shop and calls for curbs on overcharging estate agents. He also spoke up against the physical-force element in the NUM.
But his politics were hard to place. He voted much more often with Labour yet he admired Norman Tebbit's approach to the unions, struck up an alliance with David Alton in his zealot's campaign to minimise abortion, stayed true to the gallows throughout all the votes and proposed a parental right to withdraw children from school sex education.
But the constant in Smith's life was an inability to get on with his own party, bitterly resentful if not given a responsibility and ready to refuse one when it was given. David Steel was a fallible, sometimes limp, party leader, but Smith's blazing hostility, close at time to hatred, suggested old-fashioned envy; and it would be expressed with blatant publicity, doing maximum harm to leader and party. Yet in 1986 he was to be heard telling Liberal conference that "I consider him to be the best party leader in Britain today", something no more accurate than the abuse of the preceding 10 years. Again, Dr Owen did much harm to centrist politics, but Smith's observation that seeing him on TV he "wanted to vomit" was too typically ad hominal.
He was handled by his party with tact and forbearance, something crowned by his nomination for a knighthood, subtle and apt reward for a devotee of the Queen Mother – also an honorific not much pursued by Liberal Democrats. Smith had originality, great courage and a charm which bypassed colleagues to maintain his popularity with the general public. He understood Rochdale and he was a noted independent. But the best Independent MPs, Nicholas Winterton say, Richard Shepherd or Tam Dalyell, are all disinterestedly devoted to serious matters. Smith, with the style of an Alderman out of JB Priestley, gave a performance which held public attention to the end, but performance was what it chiefly was.
Cyril Smith, politician and businessman: born Rochdale 28 June 1928; Liberal Party agent, Stockport 1948–50; Labour Party agent, Ashton-under-Lyne 1950–53, Heywood and Royton 1953–55; Councillor, County Borough of Rochdale 1952–66, Alderman 1966–74, Mayor 1966–67; rejoined Liberal Party 1967; Councillor, Rochdale Metropolitan District Council 1973–75; MP, Rochdale 1972–1992 (Liberal 1972–88, Liberal Democrat 1988–92); Liberal Chief Whip 1975–76; Kt 1988; MBE 1966; died Rochdale 3 September 2010.
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