Chris Smith: 'I hope that talking about HIV will end some of the mythology'

Andrew Grice
Monday 31 January 2005 01:00

Twenty years ago, Chris Smith made headlines when he "came out" as Britain's first openly gay MP. As he prepared to celebrate that landmark moment at a reception in his honour tomorrow week, the former cabinet minister wondered whether to reveal he had been HIV-positive for 17 years.

Twenty years ago, Chris Smith made headlines when he "came out" as Britain's first openly gay MP. As he prepared to celebrate that landmark moment at a reception in his honour tomorrow week, the former cabinet minister wondered whether to reveal he had been HIV-positive for 17 years.

He disclosed his homosexuality to show "it is perfectly possible for someone to be gay and do exactly the same work and job and contribute to society as anyone else". As his party approached, Mr Smith thought to himself, "Well, exactly the same is true for people with HIV". Although much progress had been made in the past 20 years, there was still much prejudice about HIV so perhaps he should use the moment to try to puncture the myths about the condition?

Nelson Mandela tipped the balance. Two weeks ago, the former South African president, who will be in London this week, spoke movingly about the death of his son, Makgatho, from Aids, saying that HIV and Aids should be treated by society as nothing more than illnesses.

As Mr Smith read newspaper reports of Mr Mandela's speech, he knew he had to speak out. He discussed the issue with Dorien Jabri, his partner for the past 15 years, who was supportive. But he knew there were downsides. He did not want to provoke a media feeding-frenzy about his life or for other public figures who were gay. Nor he did not want to become stereotyped as a single-issue campaigner.

He agonised right up to the last minute before deciding on Saturday afternoon to write an article for yesterday's Sunday Times. After he had "pressed the button" on his computer, he felt better. He was, however, still wondering how people would react when he attended a Burns Night party held by his Islington South Constituency Labour Party on Saturday night. By the time he joined friends for dinner in a local restaurant, the inevitable media demands were arriving. At 12.30am, he agreed to be at GMTV's South Bank studio by 7am.

Interviewed by The Independent yesterday, Mr Smith seemed happy in his own skin. He had been inundated with messages of support from friends. "It wasn't an easy decision to make," he said. "I gradually thought it was the right thing to do. Having made the decision, I am absolutely certain it was the right thing to do."

Was he relieved to share his secret finally with the wider world? It was not quite the right word, but the feeling was there. "I just hope that talking about it openly will help to remove some of the mythology and lack of knowledge," he said.

Mr Smith, 53, admitted it was a shock when he was diagnosed. At the time, HIV often led to Aids. The worst thing was the uncertainty. The drugs now widely available were in their relatively early days; they have become more effective over the years and his "combination therapy", which means taking "lots of pills", has worked. He had an "added incentive" to keep fit and pursue his passion of mountain walking. Today, his early fears have disappeared, and he feels lucky.

"Obviously, it is something that has been a very private and personal thing. You learn to cope with it, live with it and thankfully continue to lead a very full and busy life. You've just got to think, 'Well, I'm not going to let this take over my life'." His doctors have told him his life expectancy is "perfectly good", as far as he knows, no different to what it would have been. "Hopefully, there will be many years of productive life," he said. "You never know; you might be run over by a bus tomorrow."

Mr Smith insisted his condition had never affected his political career. "It's never had any impact of that kind. Thanks to the excellent care and quality of advice available through the NHS, I have been entirely fit and well and with no problems. Nowadays, wherever you live in Britain, you get access to best-quality treatment. Unfortunately, that is not true for hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world, particularly in Africa. The inequity across the globe is something I do want to highlight and help campaign against."

Nor does his condition explain one mystery about his career: why, as the shadow health secretary when Labour won power in 1997, he did not move to the Department of Health (which went to Frank Dobson) but the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS). Only a very few friends knew he was HIV-positive; he did not tell Tony Blair. "There was no need for anyone to know because I was perfectly able to do whatever job I was given," he said. As far as he is aware, the security services did not tell Mr Blair. "I never thought to ask," he said.

He would have gone to the health department but was "very pleased" to go to the DCMS, which he describes as "undeniably the most enjoyable portfolio in government". He had four years at the department before being sacked by Mr Blair after the 2001 election to give others a chance at the top table. It was no coincidence, perhaps, that his DCMS seat went to Tessa Jowell, an ultra-Blairite. Although an early backer of Mr Blair in the 1994 leadership election, Mr Smith was never a member of the New Labour inner circle. He was too independent-minded.

In 1996, Mr Blair and Gordon Brown decided to end child benefit for those aged 16 to 18, but did not tell Mr Smith, social security spokesman. He heard about it on Radio 4, and was apopleptic. His strained relationship with Mr Brown probably explains why he did not get a major spending department in 1997.

His sacking in 2001 surprised many Labour MPs. "As someone famously said, politics is a rough old trade," he said. "There are ups and downs and you have to accept things that happen. I was disappointed, but you move on." Since then, he has been a constructive critic of the Government, not a bitter has-been as the Blairites like to brand troublesome former ministers. He certainly caused trouble on Iraq, leading the Labour backbench rebellion against the war.

Now, unlike some critics, he is ready to move on, hoping that yesterday's elections bring stability and prosperity. "I think we need to make sure the lessons have been learnt. Obviously, we need to make sure the best possible future for Iraq does get put in place. I certainly think there is a reasonable timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops. The more that can be done under the authority and auspices of the UN rather just the United States, the better."

In May 2003, Mr Smith announced he would stand down as MP for Islington South and Finsbury at the next election, a seat he has represented since 1983, when he won it with a wafer-thin majority of 363. With many Labour MPs soldiering on well into their sixties, why did he decide to go in his early fifties? "I will miss part of being in the Commons," he said. "But there are other things to do and devote my time and energy to."

His passion for the arts will be at the heart of his new life. He runs the Clore Leadership Programme, which trains arts workers in management, chairs the London Cultural Commission set up by the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and is visiting professor at the University of the Arts, London.

After his announcement yesterday, another new role beckons. He may have had his differences with Mr Blair and Mr Brown, but they are on the same page on Africa. He is now likely to be a powerful ally in their campaign during Britain's presidency of the G8 leading industrial nations to persuade the rest of the world to tackle Aids and poverty in Africa. Perhaps his CV offers a more graphic way to highlight the issue than another speech by the Prime Minister or Chancellor.

"We need to tackle the poverty and injustice that gives rise to the grossly differential prospects for people living with HIV in the heart of Africa and in the West," he said. "We are starting to get the issue properly addressed with the initiatives our Government has taken up in recent months. I hope we will see a lot more of that. Priority number one is to make the drug treatments that can keep people alive, healthy and stable available as widely as possible. Number two is to identify a vaccine to prevent the spread of the virus."

So when the London Mayor throws his party for Mr Smith next week, there will be plenty of serious business to discuss. Mr Smith said: "I hope it will be not just an occasion to celebrate a 20th anniversary, but also to put a bit of thought into how we can make further progress in the years to come."


Born: 24 July 1951, London

Education: George Watson's College, Edinburgh; read English at Cambridge (BA, 1972, PhD, 1979); Harvard University (1975-76)

Career: 1976 The Housing Corporation;

1978: Islington councillor; 1983: MP for Islington South and Finsbury;

1997: Secretary of State for National Heritage

1997: Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport

1997: Chair, Millennium Commission

2004: Visiting professor, University of the Arts

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