It was 25 years ago yesterday that we lost John Smith, the Labour leader.
I was working at Labour head office at the time. I only knew John as well as any junior member of staff could know the leader, but ask anyone who worked with him and they’ll tell you the relationship was more than one of dutiful subservience. We saw first-hand his warmth, his intellect, his humour, his determination and above all his values. We loved and believed in him for it.
It was those qualities that the British people so warmed to, and why they grieved when he died. I remember vividly seeing strangers weep in the streets and the hundreds of people who brought flowers to the steps of Labour HQ at 150 Walworth Road.
John left the Labour Party riding a wave of success. We’d just had a fantastic set of local elections; Gallup had us 20 points ahead in the polls and a few weeks later we had the best set of EU election results we have ever had.
It’s a strange coincidence that the 25th anniversary of John’s death should come at a time of such turmoil for Britain’s relationship with Europe, and indeed our relationship and understanding of ourselves as a nation.
John’s pro-European internationalism was one of the most important elements of his leadership. He rightly saw anti-EU sentiment, whether of the right-wing independent trading nation variety, or the left-wing “socialism in one country” variety, as equally wrong-headed. He had only been an MP for a matter of months when he rebelled against the party leadership and voted for the UK to join the Common Market in October 1971. Had we not lost him so soon, I know he would have provided a strong and consistent counter narrative to the anti-EU sentiment that dominated politics for the 20 years leading up the EU referendum.
As for the issue on everyone’s lips today, had John been alive to witness the great damage this process is wreaking on country and our public debate, I have no doubt that he would have taken a stand very similar to that of his deputy, Dame Margaret Beckett, and backed a people’s vote as a way out of this destructive mess.
John exemplified the difference between patriotism and nationalism. He was proud to be Scottish, but never fell into divisive, narrow nationalism. He wanted devolution but never separation.
This EU election is set to be dominated by corrosive far-right sentiment, posing as patriotism. Nigel Farage and his far-right colleague, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, are trying to speak for Britain and define our country. John would have seen this plastic patriotism for what it was and exposed them for what they are — base nationalists of the nastiest kind, the ultimate cynics, playing on fears and lies.
I know many Labour supporters are not happy with the position we have taken on Brexit, but I urge those wavering to think about what is at stake in this election.There are only two forces that can triumph — that nasty nationalism of the Farage Brexit Party, or the tolerant, compassionate, internationalist, outward-looking patriotism of the Labour Party. That’s who we as a party were under John Smith and it’s who we are now. So I ask all Labour supporters, please: don’t stay at home, don’t put that cross elsewhere — don’t let them win.
This article first appeared in The Times May 13th 2019