Leading Article: Man of honour in cynical times

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The Independent Online
IN AN age in which politicians are widely seen as cynical, John Smith provided a refreshing contrast. He was a person of conspicuous virtue. His honest, prudent manner, buoyed by geniality, was his great appeal. His premature death yesterday should be doubly mourned. Labour has lost a leader who restored party morale after a humiliating fourth general election defeat. The country has been deprived of a potential prime minister who could have helped to rescue politics from disrepute.

He was driven by moral imperatives. When he spoke of improving opportunities for the disadvantaged, of tackling poverty and unemployment, he meant what he said. This was a politician who genuinely believed that Labour not only cared more but also could do more for the needy. In this great personal integrity, Mr Smith resembled Hugh Gaitskell, that other Labour leader who died suddenly within sight of victory.

But he also had a healthy thirst for power, crucial for an Opposition leader whose job is to keep alive the ambition to govern. Native of a country where Labour dominated through the Thatcher years, he never lost his sense of having a right to rule. He was particularly contemptuous of the convulsions that seized the party in the early Eighties, though defection to the SDP held no allure. Rather, he considered embracing Scottish separatism, tempted as he was by the attractions of governing in Edinburgh rather than merely opposing in Westminster.

There are other comparisons to Gaitskell, who similarly lifted his party out of the doldrums of defeat. Like him, Mr Smith opposed the electorally damaging excesses of the left and fought to modernise his party in terms both of policy and its institutions. But where Gaitskell was a towering figure, innovative and politically courageous, Mr Smith followed a path cut by Neil Kinnock and erred on the side of caution. He will not be remembered, as Gaitskell is, for a superior political intellect.

Scotland, which gave Mr Smith the moral certainties of Presbyterianism and genuine belief in egalitarianism, was a key influence in his life. His parliamentary skills were those of an Edinburgh advocate, although his charisma did not come across so well in set-piece speeches or television interviews. He will be much missed as a member of the Scottish political establishment, to which he promised a devolved assembly. But his roots north of the border also helped to explain his weaknesses.

Labour's hegemony there left him with a lack of sympathy for southern voters whom Labour must woo to gain power. His decision to announce a tax-raising alternative budget during the 1992 election campaign proved a disastrous mistake in those quarters. Likewise, nurtured in the collective culture of Scottish socialism, he failed to appreciate fully the urgency of reforming the party from top to bottom. True, he succeeded in curbing the political power of the trade unions, but he fell short of muting their collective voice within the party. 'One member one vote' has yet to be adopted in leadership elections, an omission that might cause lasting damage unless the trade unions act in a mature manner during the forthcoming contest.

This conservatism contrasted with his views on Europe. True to his convictions, Mr Smith voted against the party whip in 1971 and backed Britain's entry into the European Community. He could not latterly be accused of political opportunism in highlighting Tory ambivalence on the subject. In the past two years, the remaining anti- European faction in the party, led by Bryan Gould, has been seen off.

On policy, Mr Smith also set in train a review that is gradually bearing fruit and for which his successor may claim the credit. But he was slow to develop a platform of fresh ideas. At times he seemed to rely on the view that elections are lost by the government rather than won by the opposition. The inadequacy of this strategy was beginning to be exposed by opinion polls that showed the Tories plummeting but Labour still not in a commanding position.

Two years into the new Parliament, the party still lacks vision. People may agree that Britain needed social democratic parties earlier this century to tackle poverty, introduce new rights and extend democracy. But Labour has yet to articulate a compelling case for social democracy in the first part of the next century. It is far from being able to claim, as Harold Wilson did, that Labour is the natural party of government.

Mr Smith needed more time. He was leader for less than two years, during which he established himself as the most popular choice to occupy 10 Downing Street. It may have been that his genius would have lain more in government than in opposition. Here was a steady, self-confident figure, the last member of James Callaghan's Cabinet to survive at the top of the party. Like the one great Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee, Mr Smith might have played a powerful role as chairman, keeping under control a cabinet of gifted, volatile colleagues eager to exercise power after years of frustration.

Such speculation will for many years preoccupy the minds of those who create Labour Party mythology. The tragedy of John Smith's death is that it will never be possible to know whether he would have built on his successes and tackled his weaknesses. His time as leader will probably be judged by history as no more than an interregnum. But it is no mean feat to leave behind a disciplined party which seems unlikely to indulge in the traditional fratricidal civil war over the succession.

The challenge to the Labour Party is to choose a new leader who will maintain this unity and not squander the inheritance. For politicians in general, the memory of John Smith should be of a man who brought rare respect and honour to their profession.