John kept faith with the people: Gordon Brown recalls a politician of warmth, integrity, compassion and wit

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The Independent Online
SIXTEEN years ago, just after John Smith had been appointed by Jim Callaghan to a cabinet post, I was one of a group of young people invited to the Smiths' home in Edinburgh. John was already a substantial political figure and I think we were a little surprised to be there. Yet what impressed us most about him was not the way he talked, but the way he listened. I doubt if he learnt very much from us.

What I have learnt since was that this was the way he treated everyone. He treated people as equals, because he genuinely believed people were equal. In this, he reflected the values of his upbringing in Ardrishaig and Dunoon: small coastal towns in the west of Scotland where he lived and went to school, the son of a local teacher.

In these quintessentially Scottish communities, and subsequently at Glasgow University and the Scottish Bar, he moved easily and comfortably, making and keeping friends. All over the country these friends now face sudden and deep personal loss.

His wide popularity and reams of friends were a reflection not just of his charm and wit - and he had plenty of both - but also his genuine and transparent integrity. People knew where they stood with John, and they knew too what he stood for. He lived his life without condescension or deference, yielding to no one and patronising no one.

His interests were wide, and his enjoyment of life enormous. He loved conversation, whether about high policy or the small change of gossip. He had a shrewd wit, a wonderful sense of humour and was a master of the well-told tale. Outside family life he was happiest with friends: talking, enjoying a dram or two, and sometimes, in the words of one of his oldest political friends, functioning as a 'one-man ceilidh'.

Yesterday and today, his constituents mourn him - and they have much to mourn. He was a man of the highest achievements who never lost touch with the people who sent him to Westminster. 'He would cross the road to talk to you,' one said yesterday.

He cared passionately about the things that his constituents cared about and remained in close touch with them despite the increasing commitments of his rise to the top. He was a good man; they trusted him and came to him and he helped them. Those of us who knew John most closely know the high regard in which his constituents held him and how much that mattered to him. Their grief is real.

In what was to be his last speech, he talked about what mattered most to him: the sense of worth and dignity of ordinary individual lives, how education and employment enhanced these lives, and how jobs brought fulfilment. He cared passionately about the injustice and waste of mass unemployment. His beliefs were egalitarian, and he used his talents unsparingly to the benefit of others. He believed in education and the development of individual talent: his own experience led him not only to value them highly, but also to seek to extend these opportunities to others.

The bright schoolboy of the Fifties went on in the early Sixties to hone his debating skills with the very best, in a glittering generation of Glasgow University speakers. A lesser man could then easily have chosen the comfortable road of a legal career at the Scottish Bar in Edinburgh. His talents and his application were such that great prizes beckoned. Instead, John chose the life of a politician, because in that calling he could best help others.

He was my friend and mentor. Travelling, working and campaigning with him was a privilege and an education; it was also great fun. He took politics seriously, but never solemnly. He communicated his sense of enjoyment and of life, wherever he went. His warmth, sincerity and openness - he had in full the West Highland tendency to make friends with strangers - were unfailing. He died at the height of his powers and on the brink of his greatest achievements.

The atmosphere in the House of Commons yesterday gives some measure of the loss his death represents to British political life. When the immediate tributes are over and the full impact sinks in, it will be clear that his death has deprived our country - not just the Labour Party, not just his wide circle of friends in all parties, but the country as a whole - of something irreplaceable.

It is no exaggeration to say that our future has been diminished by his death. He was uniquely equipped - by his nature, his experience and his commitment - to bind this nation together and to heal the deep wounds of the past 15 years. His last speech, with its emphasis on justice, fairness and the central role of politics in their attainment, will serve as a fitting political testimony.

Everyone knew of John's love of the mountains. I take consolation in that now. A line from the Scottish Paraphrases, a line he knew well, 'Behold the Mountain of the Lord', brings his life into focus and perspective. A quiet faith sustained him throughout his career and informed all his political endeavours. His values were those of a Christian Socialist, and these values still endure.

And on the long upward path there is the companionship to be remembered and relished, the good humour and the wit, the intelligence and the integrity. In that sense, John Smith is with us still.

The author is shadow Chancellor and MP for Dunfermline East.