Andy McSmith: Had John Smith lived, how different the world might have been

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At lunchtime today there will be an unusual remembrance service in an abbey on the Scottish island of Iona, where John Smith, the former leader of the Labour Party, is buried. About half the congregation will be islanders, the other half, personal friends and family members gathering to mark the tenth anniversary of Smith's sudden death at the age of 55, on 12 May 1994.

At lunchtime today there will be an unusual remembrance service in an abbey on the Scottish island of Iona, where John Smith, the former leader of the Labour Party, is buried. About half the congregation will be islanders, the other half, personal friends and family members gathering to mark the tenth anniversary of Smith's sudden death at the age of 55, on 12 May 1994.

His parting has given rise to a cottage industry of counter-factual history. "What if John Smith had lived?" has been the unanswerable subject of student essays, magazine articles, newspaper articles, book chapters, and very nearly of whole books.

His posthumous reputation has taken an unexpected turn. All through his political life he was on the right wing of the Labour Party. His greatest act of rebellion was to join Roy Jenkins and others in voting in favour of Britain's entry to the EU in 1972.

When it was Labour policy to withdraw from Europe, take control of large portions of British industry and renounce nuclear weapons, Smith believed in none of those things. On the only occasion that he gave party activists the opportunity to vote for him, by running for membership of the national executive, he was trounced by the idols of the left such as Tony Benn and Neil Kinnock.

Now those party activists remember him with reverend affection, while in Blairite circles he is seen as a stubborn, old-fashioned politician who lost Labour the 1992 election and would have lost the next one. This view was expounded in a book by Blair's favourite pollster, Philip Gould, and by the economic commentator Gavyn Davies, later elevated to the chairmanship of the BBC, who criticised Smith for not making use of spin-doctors such as Peter Mandelson. Now he blames his own downfall on another spin-doctor, Alastair Campbell.

A large part of the commentariat took the same view up until the day Smith died, particularly in papers owned by Rupert Murdoch. To The Sunday Times, for example, he was 'little Johnny head-in-air, doesn't know and doesn't care".

That abruptly changed with the shock of his death, when the entire country reacted as if they had lost a national statesman rather than a mere party leader. It was as if the nation suddenly noticed that the much-maligned Labour Party was slaughtering the Conservatives in local elections and holding a commanding lead in opinion polls. Smith's obituary in The Sun opened with the words "Britain's next Prime Minister died yesterday ..."

Political addicts still strike up arguments about whether Smith would have led Labour to victory and, if so, how his administration would have differed from Tony Blair's.

I share the view that by 1994, the Conservative government was damaged beyond repair, and Smith would have secured a majority big enough to govern comfortably. His majority would doubtless have been smaller than Blair's. If the swing to Labour had been just two percentage points less, Michael Portillo would have held his seat in Enfield and would presumably have succeeded John Major.

While Smith would not have been open to attack as a control freak, addicted to taking advice from spin-doctors, the Tories would have portrayed him as self-satisfied and unconcerned about rising taxes or spreading bureaucracy. But on the big domestic issues, with Gordon Brown as his Chancellor and Tony Blair as Home Secretary, John Smith would have followed much the same path that Labour has travelled without him, and with the economy in good order would probably have pulled off a second victory in 2001. After that, Smith might have taken his 65th birthday, in September 2003, as his cue to go.

In that case, the last big decision of his premiership would have been whether to send British troops into Iraq alongside the Americans. During the first Gulf War, the modernisers claimed that out of the entire Labour Shadow Cabinet, the one who was least enthused and least helpful about Neil Kinnock's decision to back the war was John Smith. The probability must therefore be that he would have sided with France and Germany in refusing to endorse a military campaign that did not have explicit UN sanction. Had he lived, how different the political landscape would look now.

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