Politicians face big, difficult questions. When confronting them we would do well to remember that bigger purpose John Smith spoke of the night before he died, 22 years ago: “to serve our country.”
“What’s the point of being in politics, if you can’t speak up for the people who can’t speak up for themselves?”
John Smith was fond of repeating that simple truth. His life was defined by its purpose.
As we remember his tragic death 22 years ago we recall a nation paused in grief. John had achieved that rare thing in politics. He had inspired ordinary people up and down our country to invest their trust in him. Labour lost a leader and the country lost a potential Prime Minister. Working people lost a champion.
Growing up in Ardrishaig, then a busy port village in the West of Scotland, it would be 12 years before John ventured as far east as Glasgow where he would later spend his university years immersed in debate and activism. This tightly knit upbringing grounded his politics in the lives and values of community. It instilled that resolute belief that it is incumbent on those blessed by fortune to make a contribution through public service.
In 1971, he defied the party whip in order to serve the country’s interest. He joined 68 of his Labour colleagues whose votes were decisive in Britain joining the Common Market. As he told the Commons that day, “economic forces must somehow be brought under popular control and be fashioned towards social and political ends that the people determine.” I will be remembering his words and that spirit when I cast my vote in the EU referendum.
He will be remembered for reforming and uniting our party, forging consensus around a pragmatic and positive case for our place in Europe, and his vision of a Scottish Parliament that would in time be finally realised. These were achievements fuelled by a burning passion for social justice, but we should also remember his warm humour and devastating wit.
Though he never lived to see the Labour government that he helped make possible, he left a tremendous legacy and his life was characterised by a fundamental decency which shone through a remarkable political career.
My own memories of the day he died are of shock and sorrow, but also clarity. A vivid sense that we must not squander what he had worked to build. Inspired by his profound decency, his death prompted me to join the Labour Party and made me realise that I wanted to play my small part in delivering the change that he and the British people had worked to make possible. He helped me recognise the importance of the ethos of public service; something we must recapture today if we are to collectively meet the challenges of tomorrow.
John also always stood up for what he knew to be right. Reflecting on his life serves as a timely reminder of how we best conduct ourselves during today’s fractious debates. I believe we should all be mindful to emulate that decency and respect for those he disagreed with, recognising them as opponents, not enemies. We can disagree without being disagreeable. A respectful tone should guide us through the heat of the debate. Otherwise, the danger for our politics is that those who feel no one is listening to them will simply stop listening to us.
This matters because too often in my time in Parliament I have found our politics to be too small. People feel frustration precisely because they know politics matters to their families. Yet too often they don’t feel it works in their interests. The challenges we must overcome are great: What is our place in a rapidly changing world and how does this shape our shared identity? How do we restore trust in institutions and overcome that feeling of powerlessness in modern life? These are big, difficult questions. When confronting them we would do well to remember that bigger purpose John spoke of the night before he died: “to serve our country.”
That must be our task today. To demonstrate the same courage in speaking for the interests of people who can’t speak up for themselves. Sharing John’s optimism for what politics can achieve so that we realise “our capacity as a nation to set our own objectives for the society in which we live, and to set about achieving them in a spirit of resolute determination.”
That enduring mission should define Labour’s path to once again earn the trust of the British people. As we continue on that journey, we are once again reminded by Labour’s lost leader of our duty to build a better kind of politics.