John Smith 1938-1994: 'A tough fighter for what he believed in': Politicians unite to pay tribute to Labour leader

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The Independent Online
John Major ordered the abandonment of normal parliamentary business on hearing of the Labour leader's death. The Commons and Lords met only to pay tribute to Mr Smith. 'I frankly do not believe there would have been the stomach for any other business,' the Prime Minister said.

Both Houses and politicians of all parties expressed themselves deeply affected by the loss of a 'great parliamentarian' and, above all, extended their sympathies to Mr Smith's wife, Elizabeth, and his three daughters.

Mr Major described his despatch box adversary as 'one of the outstanding parliamentarians of modern politics . . . a tough fighter for what he believed in'.

As a barrister and a QC, he was always master of his brief, however complex and detailed it might be. 'But beyond being master of his brief, on a good day, and for him there were many good days, his speeches could shape and move the will of the House in a way that few members are able to do.'

Mr Smith had formidable and rare skills, the Prime Minister said. 'Even for those against whom those skills were deployed, it is hard to bear that we will never see or hear those skills in this House again.' He had 'no malice' - a virtue echoed in many of the tributes.

Mr Major said that in their private talks he had found Mr Smith courteous, fair-minded and constructive, but tough for what he was seeking and believed in.

'I think of him as an opponent, not an enemy, and when I remember him I shall do so with respect and with affection,' he said.

Margaret Beckett, now the acting Labour leader, said Mr Smith was a man of 'formidable intellect, of the highest ethics and of staunch integrity'. Part of the conventional wisdom of British politics was that he looked like a bank manager and as a consequence was labelled as 'unduly sober' or excessively cautious. 'But though he certainly had a safe pair of hands, appearances can be deceptive. John Smith was no sobersides,' she said.

He had a wicked sense of humour, loved a good gossip and liked nothing better than a convivial drink with friends 'in which he was excellent company'. Mrs Beckett said that the love and support that Mr Smith offered to and received from his family was also central to his political beliefs. 'He wanted for others the richness he enjoyed.

'He said to me recently, 'why would anyone bother to go into politics unless it is to speak up for people who can't speak up for themselves?' That feeling for others, along with his hatred of injustice, were the forces that drove him, the service to which he gave his life.'

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said Mr Smith's extraordinary parliamentary talent was 'never, ever tainted with rancour'. He was trusted by politicians and the public. 'We have lost one of the foremost parliamentary talents of our time, a powerful advocate for the politics of progress in Britain, and a thoroughly decent and deeply gifted man.'

Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, said Mr Smith's death would be mourned across the country. 'He had conviction without obsession. His principles were for application, not for decoration, and his superb intelligence was for practical use, not for adornment.

'He was, in Shelley's words, one of those who, with resolute will, vanquished earth's pride and meanness, burst the icy chains of custom, and shone, a day star of his age.'

Tony Benn, who worked with Mr Smith in and out of government for 25 years, said: 'Inside him burned the flame of anger at injustice and the flame of hope that we could build a better world.'

Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat MP for Fife NE, said that throughout his adult life he had had the privilege of calling Mr Smith a friend. They were at Glasgow University together, had been struggling advocates at the Scottish bar and had even climbed a few Scottish mountains together.

Mr Smith's 'overwhelming sense of duty' was a product of his upbringing. Yet it was typical of the man that he never paraded his Christian beliefs, Mr Campbell said. 'I think it can fairly be said of John Smith that he had all the vitues of a Scottish Presbyterian but none of the vices.'

Lord Wakeham, Leader of the House of Lords, said politicians might not be held in high esteem at the moment but John Smith was an exception. 'He was recognised by the public for what he was known to be by his colleagues in Parliament and his political life - honest, honourable in his dealings and dedicated to serving the public interest as he saw fit.'

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, who brought Mr Smith into his Cabinet in 1978, said he always felt his 'calm judgement, reasonable approach and sense of proportion . . . eminently fitted him to lead our great party'.

The former prime minister said it was an occasion he trusted would never happen in his lifetime - 'to see yet another of our great leaders swept away so tragically before he had time to fulfil the great gifts and talents that he possessed'.

(Photograph omitted)