'The last British statesman': At John Smith's funeral yesterday, there was sense of the door opening for a new attack on cynicism, greed and privilege

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The Independent Online
'THE PEOPLE know that they have lost a friend.' Donald Dewar said it, in the Cluny church in Edinburgh. As a Glasgow Labour MP, close to John Smith for a lifetime, he chose his words well. Outside the church, the crowd standing in the icy spring wind heard him, and stirred a little. That was why they were there.

Britain does not go in for political funerals. When Wellington and Churchill were carried through the streets, the people came to remember past glories and old victories. The idea that a funeral can be not only a farewell but a new beginning is a foreign one. But the death of John Smith has released a strange, very fresh gust of feeling. Like the cold wind blowing over Morningside from the sea, it carries a faint scent of something forgotten and remote: faith in a leader and trust in what he stood for. They carried John Smith's coffin carefully down the steps to the hearse. A few people in the crowd wiped their eyes; most remained impassive, their faces closed. The Prime Minister and his wife emerged into silence. So did the politicians who followed: old Michael Foot being helped down the steps, Tony Blair walking alone in a space between his party comrades. Questioned, people said reluctantly that John Smith had been an honest man, not proud, a man who listened to ordinary folk and who should have led the country.

It was a Scottish occasion. In the church, there was little ritual; God was praised, but mostly for helping 'a good and brave man' to fight for the happiness of others. The minister said: 'He did justice, he loved mercy, he walked humbly with his God.' This was not what we are used to hearing about politicians. And, equally unexpected, the speakers seemed to rejoice in John Smith's achievement, rather than mourn for a life brutally cut off on what might have been the threshold of triumph.

Scotland is a nation inured to disappointment, to defeats snatched from the jaws of victory. But this did not feel like one more 'what might have been' calamity. John Smith, suddenly, showed people that there was a style of politics, a type of politician with which they could identify. He had seemed at first bustling, ambitious, lawyerly - much like the rest of them. But then his quality began to reach through. It was seen that he was high spirited but also that he was angry about selfishness and unfairness, that he meant what he said. We in the media missed this secret change in public opinion. So much the worse for us.

John Smith was more than half-way across the bridge to glory when he fell. To die at such a moment of promise is tragic, and yet the mourners in Edinburgh did not feel that the world was utterly unfair and impossible. The 'lost leader' bitterness was somehow missing. It was as if the dead man had unlocked a rusty gate, so that a way ahead was open. An Edinburgh councillor, standing with her children, said 'when I go round doorsteps, they say: 'You're all the same'. So where does this feeling come from?'

It comes from a sort of relief. The British, perhaps for a moment only, are tired of their own superficial cynicism about politics, and when John Smith died it suddenly seemed unbearable to lump him with 'all the others'. The gate has opened to anyone who can carry on what John Smith began: restoring self-respect to people who still have values but no longer know what to do with them. For him, these values were the sort of practical, capable, non-ideological attack on greed and privilege, in the name of morality and efficiency, which the British have often supported.

Watching the coffin go, a friend in the crowd said: 'That was the last British statesman.' He meant that no future leader would be comfortable - as Smith would have been comfortable - to be at once Scottish and British and Prime Minister at Westminster. John Smith loved Scotland extravagantly, and his most important unfinished business was the establishment of a Scottish parliament within the UK. He was convinced that this would strengthen the Union, and begin the reform - the 'Europeanisation' - of the British state. His successors may be less confident.

Today, he is being buried on the island of Iona. Most Scots are moved and comforted by this decision. It salutes John Smith's romantic, Highland side.

But it is also a statement. His Christian socialism arises from Argyll, whose ruined villages write a very simple message on the landscape about what the uncontrolled strong will do to the unprotected weak. John Smith tried to make a weary, declining industrial society read this message and recover enough confidence to act on it. When he died, the British had been listening to him, whether they will act, we shall see.

(Photograph omitted)

Tributes from across Europe, page 2

Leading article, page 14