Ex-puffer cook who devised Labour's winning recipe

John Smith
February 3, 2006

The Best Prime Minister We Never Had" read the headline in the Daily Mirror the day after John Smith died in May 1994. In this authorised biography of the Labour leader, Mark Stuart does an excellent job in capturing the complexities of the man and the context in which he led the party in the years before new Labour.

Smith, a Glasgow University trained barrister with a razor-sharp intellect, forensic debating skills, a wonderful sense of humour, great integrity and an ability to inspire the affection and loyalty of those around him, was a tragic loss to the Labour movement.

But he was a man with a dark side, with a ferocious temper, a tendency to overdo the whisky, and a distinct lack of organisational skills. One of his favourite ways of keeping records and communicating with others was, literally, to write notes on the back of an envelope.

Smith came from the Gaitskellite wing of the Labour Party, but nonetheless succeeded in winning the respect of all wings. Tony Benn is quoted as saying that he would be remembered for his "integrity and very strong character", while fellow rightwinger Denis Healey described his death as "one of the greatest tragedies to beset the Labour party". Even New Labour's favourite pollster, Philip Gould, felt that "he gave back to Labour the confidence and pride that it had lost for so long".

Stuart skilfully describes Smith's upbringing as the son of a primary school headmaster in Ardrishaig, a small village set on the shores of Loch Fyne. His upbringing created in him a lifelong affection for the Scottish Islands and Highlands, and his favourite pastime was hill walking.

One of Smith's often-repeated stories was about his student vacation job as the cook on a "puffer", a small coal-fired boat that carried freight around the Firth of Clyde. The skipper, anxious to preserve the boy's innocence, put up a sign which read "Don't call the cook a ******". But during a choppy passage across the Firth, Smith threw up into one bucket, while peeling potatoes into another. Afterwards, the skipper changed the notice to: "Don't call the ****** a cook".

Not surprisingly, the main debate about Smith among academics is about what would have happened if he had lived to lead the Labour party into the 1997 election. As Stuart points out, this has been obscured by the desire of some new Labour apparatchiks to claim that history started in 1994, when Tony Blair became leader.

What is clear is that Smith would have won the election since the polls put Labour streets ahead of the Conservatives just before he died. Stuart thinks that under a Smith government Britain might have joined the euro and it would have stayed out of the war in Iraq.

Equally, it is unlikely that it would have adhered to Conservative spending plans in the first two years of office, something that delayed improvements in the public services by years. Nor would there have been the obsession with spin, which paid dividends initially but then created serious problems of trust for the Government. The rivalry between Gordon Brown and Blair would have continued, but Smith had the authority and the self-confidence to keep both in line. On the other hand, he would probably have refused to hand control over interest rates to the Bank of England, a policy that has been very successful in retrospect.

But just as the Labour Party was at ease with itself under Smith, Britain would have been at ease with itself too.

Paul Whiteley is professor of government, Essex University, and co-director of the British Election Study.

John Smith: A Life

Author - Mark Stuart
Publisher - Methuen
Pages - 509
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 845 126 3

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