Chris Smith, HIV positive for 17 years, is inspired by Mandela to go public

For years the Commons' only openly gay MP, the former culture secretary has broken a new barrier by speaking out about his illness and treatment

Andy McSmith
Sunday 30 January 2005 01:00

Chris Smith, the former secretary of state for culture, has become the first serving British politician to breach the taboo about HIV, the condition that causes Aids, by announcing that he was tested HIV positive 17 years ago.

Chris Smith, the former secretary of state for culture, has become the first serving British politician to breach the taboo about HIV, the condition that causes Aids, by announcing that he was tested HIV positive 17 years ago.

His public statement was prompted by the declaration by Nelson Mandela, who recently told the world that his 54-year-old son, Makgatho, had died from Aids.

"What Nelson Mandela said very much struck a chord with me," he said. Mr Smith's illness was previously known or suspected in Westminster, but he has persuaded successive national newspaper editors that to report it would be a breach of his privacy. He did not tell Tony Blair about his illness, and it is possible that the Prime Minister did not know until now that one of his cabinet ministers had been tested HIV positive.

In an interview with today's Sunday Times, Mr Smith said that he considered himself lucky that his illness was treated quickly with anti-retroviral drugs. "When I first heard about it, I was really worried because there was hardly any treatment, but I was lucky and fairly early on I was put on AZT and later on to a combination of drugs.

"It was the uncertainty which clearly has an effect. I've also been with the National Health Service all that time," he said.

"I didn't feel the need to tell people, except for a very, very few, as it was not in any way affecting my work."

With his announcement, Mr Smith has claimed another first in a career in which he has broken a series of social taboos. For 12 years he was the only "out" gay in the House of Commons. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, is to host a celebration next weekend to mark the 20th anniversary of Smith's unprecedented decision to made a public declaration of his sexuality.

The Labour victory in 1997 made him the first known gay to hold office in the British Cabinet. There had been other gay MPs and cabinet ministers, but they had all kept their sexuality secret.

He broke another social barrier when he induced the Commons authorities to recognise his long-term partner, Dorian Jabri, who was granted privileges that had previously been available only for the legal wives or husbands of MPs. The fact that he "came out" helped protect his privacy for many years. The tabloid press did not go out in pursuit of Chris Smith's partner as they did the lovers of other, less open MPs, because there was nothing to reveal that was not already known.

But he had to endure being "gay MP Chris Smith" every time his name cropped up in certain newspapers, even though, unusually for a politician, he rarely liked to talk about himself or his personal life. "I wanted to say, 'Yes I'm gay. So what? Now let's get on with the job of being a good MP,'" he wrote. But he sees his career in terms of the usual ups and downs of political life - the highs being offices obtained and political battles won; the lows, his defeats.

The first high was being part of the left-leaning group that took control of Islington council in the early 1980s, and then captured the Islington South parliamentary seat that Smith has held since 1983. Another high was being elected to Labour's shadow Cabinet in 1992, just after John Smith had been elected party leader. Chris Smith was politically closer to him than to any other Labour leader. They shared their Christian faith and slightly traditionalist Labour opinions. They also shared a hobby, climbing the 277 Scottish mountains known as the Munros. Chris Smith is one of relatively few climbers to have "bagged" every Munro, including the notorious Inaccessible Pinnacle. He is also fond of walking in the Lake District, and chairs the Wordsworth Trust.

Low points included John Smith's death in 1994. Chris Smith's relations with both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were poor, which explains why he was never given a major government department to run. In opposition, his popularity among backbench Labour MPs helped him reach the level of shadow Secretary of State for Health, but as soon as Labour came to power, Blair downgraded him to be Secretary of State for Culture, the only government job he ever held.

One of his proudest achievements was securing free access to museums and galleries, but his time at the department was overshadowed by a decision made by others, to push ahead with the Millennium Dome. Smith wanted to abandon the project, begun by the Tories, but was overruled by Tony Blair and John Prescott.

He was sacked, without explanation, after the 2001 election, but avoided the temptation to become a perpetual backbench rebel. He did, however, play a leading role in opposing the Iraq war, and helped organise the biggest rebellion in recent Labour history, when MPs voted on the Iraq conflict in March 2003. He has already announced his intention to stand down as an MP at the next general election.

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