BOOK REVIEW / For the love of a traditional party man: 'John Smith: Life and Soul of the Party' - Gordon Brown & James Naughtie: Mainstream, 14.99 pounds

THERE is always a sense of loss when a patently good man dies suddenly, long before his time. More so when it is clear that his time was inexorably coming and that the coming was bound to be of great importance to the nation.

So it was when John Smith collapsed, suffering from his second heart attack, on the morning of 12 May. He was 55, and had led the Labour Party for less than two years. He had taken part in no great crusades, fought no great battles, thrown no great tantrums. And yet people, ordinary people, increasingly alienated from politics and politicians, were genuinely grieved by his passing. This memorial volume is composed of essays about the man and essays by the man. The introduction is by his wife, Elizabeth, and of the many fine tributes here, hers is perhaps the finest. What I found most moving was the way in which she combines her personal memories of John with perceptive analysis of his position within the Labour Party.

She writes of her husband: 'He was a Labour loyalist by instinct and a pragmatist by inclination . . . When he was asked - as all leaders are - what his 'big idea' was, and how he was going to get it across, preferably in three words, his reply was simple: 'A Labour government'.'

Writing of Smith's determination to climb the 277 Munros (the Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet above sea level), she says: 'He preferred doing things that involved setting targets, making lists and ticking them off.' Both ideas - the traditionalism and the target-setting - spoke to me, because I have just finished re-reading John Smith's first speech to conference as leader, two years ago.

In truth that speech is not a piece of radical oratory. It does not sing. It has no boastful, soaring vision. At points it is little more than a commendably workmanlike list of Labour aspirations and pledges. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a traditional Labour leader's conference address. This is not surprising. He was, as Mrs Smith makes clear, a traditional Labour man.

Gordon Brown describes Smith's background as the son of a Scottish village schoolmaster, with all that entails about intellectual austerity, Christian rectitude and an almost instinctive sense of family, community, and social responsibility. Where his sense of mischief and his love of the good things of life came from I cannot guess.

It was, appropriately enough, Labour's last lost leader, Hugh Gaitskell, who first spotted the young Smith, speaking at a dinner at Glasgow University in the early Sixties. Smith's theme was sensible and pragmatic. However noble the party's aims, Labour was nothing if it could not win power: its members must learn self-discipline and not pursue their political quarrels to the point at which electoral disaster loomed.

There are quotations here, too, from Smith's religious musings, most notably the following: 'The Second Commandment calls on us to love our neighbours as ourselves. It does not expect human fraility to be capable of loving our neighbours more than ourselves: that would be a task of saintly dimensions. But I do not believe that we can truly follow that great Commandment unless we have a concept of concern for our fellow citizens which is reflected in the organisation of society.'

It is perhaps a wordy epitaph, and of modest aspiration. But its fundamental decency reverberates, as it does in so much that John Smith wrote and said. That is why he meant so much to millions who never knew him. Elizabeth concludes: 'John died at the height of his political powers and in a job he loved.'

She could have added that he died secure in the affection of his family and of millions of fellow citizens.