It is now a cliche, but with John Smith what you saw was what you got. There was no side to the man or his politics. He was straight, principled and consistent. And, on that basis, you could take him or leave him. The country seemed poised to take him.
We are all products of our upbringings, but there can have been few public figures whose beliefs and characteristics were so straightforwardly traceable to the environment in which he grew up. All his life, John Smith was the child of a Highland village, in which people were assumed to be equal and measured by their true worth. The paradox is that he came from a county, Argyll, which has never voted Labour in its history. The translation of radical instincts into votes is far from straightforward, particularly in rural areas. But John had the dual influences of an egalitarian society within which to establish a basic outlook on life, and a political household to give it direction.
Although he came from a long line of fishermen, John's own father was a primary school headmaster who taught in several Argyll communities. Even as recently as the post-war decade, public servants in such places tended to keep quiet about their politics, particularly if they were Labour politics. He was a quiet man, but a profound influence.
John inherited his socialism and his Presbyterianism, but the legacy was much wider than that. It explained his total lack of pomposity or false pride; his easy ability to maintain friendships across political divisions; his kindness and concern for people in difficulty. In every sense, he remembered where he came from.
Not long ago, John, George Robertson and I went back to Dunoon Grammar School for a reunion. In spite of its name, it was a comprehensive before its time: the kind of state secondary which you find in small communities, catering for boys, girls, rich, poor, Catholics, Protestants, the gifted and the not quite so gifted.
John gave a fine speech, humorous and nostalgic, which was on the surface suitably non-political. In fact, without mentioning party or government, it went to the heart of his political beliefs, for he dwelt passionately upon the virtues of the Scottish education system which offered youngsters of all backgrounds the opportunity to make the best of themselves, as he had done.
That was what he spent his life on trying to create - a society in which everyone should have a decent chance. It really was as simple, or as ambitious, as that and he passionately believed in the Labour Party as the only instrument capable of delivering it. This most intelligent of politicians never lost sight of the most basic political creed; he saw the need for neither great poverty nor great riches.
Many of his close friends came from a remarkable generation at Glasgow University of the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were brilliant debaters, who ran a rectorial campaign which secured election for Chief Albert Luthuli. (When John joined the celebrations at the South African Embassy last week, he had a long pedigree on the issue.) They liked their whisky and loved their politics.
Some drifted politically or went off to make money. John and Donald Dewar - debating partners in those halcyon days - were two who stayed the course, never wavering in their loyalty to the Labour Party even in its most self-destructive moments. They remained Gaitskellites by instinct and that meant fight, fight, and fighting again for the party they loved. John would have been as likely to join the temperance movement as the SDP.
Although Gaitskell - who heard him speak at a student dinner and singled him out for advancement - remained a heroic figure, John had long since managed to override the largely artificial categorisations of right and left within the Labour Party. He did so without apparently changing his mind about anything over a period of 30 years. The party came his way on Europe, disarmament, Scottish devolution.
The irony was not lost on him when, before the last election, a row broke out about his taxation proposals. He, the supposed rightwinger, remained firmly committed to the principle of redistributionism when others retreated at the first whiff of grapeshot.
John straightforwardly believed that we had to go out and tell people that if they wanted a society which offered work, homes, education and a decent National Health Service to everyone, then it had to be at some cost to those who could afford it. To pretend otherwise was an affront to his integrity. He maintained that you had to set out your stall, believe in its contents and then argue for them.
He was a gregarious man. Not for him the measured decision that it was perhaps a good idea to have a drink with a few colleagues in the smoke-room. He was there because he enjoyed the gossip and the dram. For a while after his first heart attack he was messianic in extolling the virtues of caloriecounting diets, but it didn't last. And, as his leadership flourished, his workload increased.
Last Wednesday, he spent the morning in Glasgow attending a hearing on Boundary Commission recommendations which affected his and neighbouring constituencies. By the afternoon, he was giving interviews on the Nicholas Scott affair - exactly the kind of political dissembly which genuinely outraged him. In the evening, he was glad-handing at the Labour fundraising do, tired but in top form. He and Elizabeth didn't leave early, for that wasn't their way.
It was a gruelling schedule, which gave all of us occasional cause for worried thoughts. But we suppressed them, since the fears which they logically provoked were unthinkable. By Thursday morning, it was too late. A great and good man was gone.
The author is the Labour spokesman on transport.Reuse content