Archbishop's tribute to 'man of the people': Charles Oulton reports on the memorial service for John Smith, the Labour leader who died of a heart attack in May

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JOHN SMITH has moved on now, his soul at rest, his body surrounded by the peace of the island of Iona. The choice of burial ground may have surprised some observers who saw the former Labour leader in terms of his charicature as the friendly bank- manager-type, more at home in the city than the wilds of his native Scotland.

But at yesterday's memorial service for the former Labour leader, in Westminster Abbey, an event of sombre reflection - with the odd flourish - which united political enemies as only death can, it was hard to avoid the impression that Mr Smith had only ever really been at home in the wilds. Or as Gerald Manley Hopkins put it in his poem, Inversnaid, the words of which echoed around the abbey in a powerful reading by the actor, Brian Cox:

What would the world be, once bereft

Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

Long live the weeds and the wildness yet.

The rest of his life - which was necessarily carried out in cities like Glasgow and London - seems, in contrast, a duty, albeit one carried out with humour and a love of ordinary people, which set him apart. It was this sense of duty, this 'vision of social justice' as the Dean of Westminster, the Very Rev Michael Mayne, put it in the bidding, that made him the political leader that he was. That, combined with his wit and incisive mind, his integrity and trustworthiness, his love for his family who sustained him, and his delight in the mountains that refreshed him.

His wit was well known to many of the 2,000 people in the abbey, who included John Major, former Labour leaders in Lord Callaghan and Michael Foot, many members of the Cabinet, countless MPs and dignitaries, and friends. But although it surfaced often at the despatch box, it was more in evidence in private, during conversations behind the scenes.

In his address, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, paid tribute to the way Mr Smith had cared for ordinary people. He wanted all of them to have opportunities to develop their full potential. 'Social justice was his cause, rooted in his fierce and instinctive commitment to the worth of every living person made in the image of God. He minded passionately about the life and chances and dignity of ordinary people.'

The Archbishop went on: 'John Smith is the name of everyman. That is fitting because every man is what John Smith the political leader stood for and worked for. Politics, as practised by John Smith and many others in all parties, is not a shallow or cynical pursuit. It is a way of serving the community, demanding hard work and high standards.'

(Photograph omitted)