John Smith and the path Britain did not take

When we lost John Smith, we lost a leader who would have taken Labour and Britain down the path of radical and necessary reform of our constitution and political culture.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
12 May 2019, 12.00am
John Smith during his speech to Labour Conference in 1993
Sean Dempsey/PA Images

We do have an elective dictatorship. I myself used to believe in the mysteries of the British Constitution. My experience over the last ten to twelve years, like many people, has caused me to change my mind quite fundamentally on that

John Smith, responding after his Charter 88 speech ‘For a Citizen's Democracy’, 1 March 1993

Twenty-five years ago today, on 12th April 1994, the leader of the Labour Party died suddenly at home after a massive heart-attack. His party was 20 per cent in the lead in the opinion polls. He would undoubtedly have become Prime Minister had he lived. An exceptionally able Scottish barrister, he had been a junior minister in the Callaghan government and oversaw the legislation in 1978 that was the first attempt to create a Scottish parliament. He then became Secretary of State for Trade. A pro-European, on the centre-right of the party, he declared himself a friend of trade unions and refused to join the break-away SDP whom he saw as anti-working class. Instead, during the long years of opposition that followed 1979 he became a QC and developed a devastating and forensic style in House of Commons debates. Promoted to Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer he was the obvious successor to Neil Kinnock after Labour lost the 1992 election. His name was John Smith.

Had he lived, the UK would certainly not have gone to war in Iraq and in all likelihood would now have a written constitution, thanks to the democratic reform process Smith had kick-started. It would also be a firmly European country… though probably governed by a Conservative.

But instead we are living in the long-aftermath of frustration, unable either to fulfil or undo the process Smith began. I played a small part in this process myself, when soon after becoming Labour leader Smith gave a speech hosted by Charter 88 - which I headed at the time. Smith intended it to be a turning point and it was. It transformed Labour from a constitutionally conservative party into a radical, reformist one.

The man

Others campaigned for reform and helped develop the policies, but this in no way diminishes Smith’s individual role, drawn from his own experience and judgment. Having been responsible for the legislation for Scottish and Welsh parliaments he was well aware of the key issues long before most of us.

I have known, in the sense of having lobbied and talked to, five Labour leaders: Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Brown and Miliband. Smith was the only one who was not consumed by anxiety. Although all shared a fear of a rabid press, the other four were each constantly apprehensive in their own distinct ways; the nature and quality of their anxieties differing according to their ambitions and character. By contrast, Smith, while cautious, was self-confident and seemed at ease with his own journey and ambition. The culture of what can be called Labourism generates a suffocating tribal suspicion on both right and left within the Labour Party. It turns leaders and those around them into control freaks, asphyxiating their creativity and crippling their ability to respond to change. This applies just as much to Blair, who made ‘change’ his battle cry, as it does to his predecessor as Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan, whose by-word was continuity. Smith was unique. He had strong views but he enjoyed the risk of engaging with others. It was a pleasure to deal with him.

The background

At the zenith of Thatcherism, with the Lawson boom at its height, and after the 1987 election gave Thatcher her third successive victory, different groups sought an opposition that would change the nature of the game. The Scottish Constitutional Convention organised for a parliament in Edinburgh based on a Scottish claim of right; the Campaign for Freedom of Information resisted the grotesque secrecy of the state; the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform had a growing influence; Liberty started to push for human rights. Then, in November 1988, Charter 88, with Lord Scarman as its eloquent figurehead, brought them all together into a single movement for cross-the-board reform and a written constitution.

With over 10,000 signatures, gathered by mail, many with cheques (the number would later grow to over 50,000), the Charter launched a four-element strategy. Its number one aim was to win Labour to reform. To achieve this Charter 88 sought cross-party cooperation, local activism, and intellectual development. In 1991 it held what must have been the first all-British ‘Constitutional Convention’ with around a thousand participants in Manchester. It also planned for the first ‘Democracy Day’ a week before the 1992 election, when over 100 local groups hosted candidate meetings across the UK, reinforced by a focussed media campaign supported by the Lib Dems. This ensured that constitutional reform entered electoral politics. Shortly before, Gordon Brown gave the first Charter 88 ‘Sovereignty Lecture’ and developed his case for ‘a new constitutional settlement’. In it, Brown drew back from the Charter’s demand for a written constitution, but nonetheless advocated the need for an integrated approach to changing the way the country was governed.

There was considerable Labour opposition to Charter 88, headed by Labour’s Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley. Hattersley opposed abolishing the House of Lords (of which he is now a member), was implacably against electoral reform, loathed the open-minded approach and was reluctant to back a human rights act. Human Rights was a critical issue and the Labour left, led at the time by Clare Short, prevented its adoption as Labour policy, on the grounds that it would give power to male judges.

After Labour lost the April 1992 election, Hattersley was so irritated he blamed Charter 88. There was a touch of truth to this. Neil Kinnock had set up the Plant Commission to consider the case for proportional representation and had become a convert, but was unable to say so until it reported. (He signed the Charter after he stepped down from the leadership.) He engaged with the ideas of reform on Democracy Day but without conviction. This gave credence to John Major’s warning of the end of the Union, if not life as we know it, should Labour be elected. Kinnock had encouraged in voters a last minute uncertainty about what he really stood for that proved fatal.

Smith’s Charter 88 lecture

Smith succeeded Kinnock and began his takeover of the Labour Party. In early 1993 he gave a speech to nurses. He told me that when he mentioned the need for human rights they burst into applause. He decided that the country was ready for what he wanted and he should strike.

Smith had made Gordon Brown his shadow Chancellor and Tony Blair his shadow Home Secretary. David Ward, Smith’s head of policy, told me later that Smith was exasperated with Blair’s caution on reform. He dismissed a paper Blair produced as much too pusillanimous. So he determined to take the lead, convinced that constitutional reform had voter appeal. He discussed with Ward the need to make a set piece speech, where to do it and with whom. Ward spontaneously suggested Charter 88, and recalls thinking that Smith would reject this as too bold. To Ward’s surprise he unhesitatingly agreed even though, as Ward wrote to me, Smith “knew very well that Charter 88 had played a decisive role in constitutional reform and that you would represent a critical and possibly sceptical audience. But that appealed to him. It shows his inner self confidence and commitment.”

I was surprised when Ward called the Charter to ask if it would host the Labour leader. I’d never lobbied Smith, who had been a Hattersley supporter. But we pulled out all the stops and Jane Powell, the Charter’s head of operations, put on the lecture in two weeks. In the process we explained that Charter 88 lectures always had a small panel to lead a discussion and then took questions from the audience. In a hangover from the intense feeling of insecurity inherited from the Kinnock period, the leader’s office reluctantly accepted that there had to be unscripted participation but banned media coverage of that part of the proceedings. Appalled at the absurdity of excluding the press from a call for democracy, I insisted on seeing Smith with Helena Kennedy, who was the Chair of the Charter 88 Council and would chair the meeting. He agreed without hesitation that such a ban was a nonsense. His response to questions was arguably the most important part of the evening. Far more interesting for me was participating in some of the drafting meetings that preceded the speech. Tony Blair took part, as did Derry Irvine, who was to become Blair’s Lord Chancellor.

Smith’s approach

The speech itself was sweeping yet careful. “I believe we must replace the out-of-date idea of an all-powerful nation state with a new and dynamic framework of government.” He saw this as a “modern European state” based on “subsidiarity” and empowering “municipal, regional, national and European decision-making”.

Smith was eloquent on the need for human rights and the incorporation of the European Convention into British law. He reinforced this with a commitment to making legal aid available to all. He was scathing about the government’s secrecy and insisted on the need for a right to know and a Freedom of Information Act. He also demanded an independent statistics office to end government deception along with equivalent laws against corporate cover-up to ensure that “the cobwebs of unnecessary secrecy around the British boardroom are blown away”.

The speech does not cover the need for Scottish and Welsh parliaments as these were already party policy - nor electoral reform, as Smith could not pre-empt the Plant Commission’s report and in fact personally opposed it. On the House of Lords he simply emphasised that he wanted to see it “replaced by an elected chamber”. How this would happen was to be considered by a Labour Party Constitutional Committee charged with proposing “what I hope will be a new and radical constitutional agenda for the twenty-first century”.

After the speech

After the speech, in response to questions, Smith went off script and there were two moments of special importance. The first was when he said, “We do have an elective dictatorship. I myself used to believe in the mysteries of the British Constitution. My experience over the last ten to twelve years, like many people, has caused me to change my mind quite fundamentally on that.”

This was the moment, they told me afterwards, that Liberal Democrats in the audience, such as Trevor Smith, then Chair of the Joseph Rowntree reform Trust, and Richard Holmes, the close advisor to the then Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, felt that the Labour leader really meant it and they could work with him. It planted the seed of what would become a decade long dalliance between Ashdown and Blair.

More important for assessing Smith’s own legacy and intentions was his discussion of the problems of creating a new constitution. “I was the last minister to try to create a new constitution in this country, as the Minister responsible for the Scotland Bill and the Wales Bill in the last Labour government”, he said. Even today this seems a surprising description. The creation of those national parliaments is usually referred to in London as mere acts of devolution. Smith added, “It’s quite difficult… to find a method of entrenching an Act”. His immediate solution was to hope that public opinion could ensure permanence.

What is striking, looking back over decades of evasion, is that Smith was keen to engage with the question of the constitution as a whole. Two years before, while he was Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer under Kinnock, I heard the famous and somewhat complacent barrister, John Mortimer, introduce Smith to a private meeting as a fellow QC. Smith thanked him courteously but distanced himself immediately, saying that as a practitioner of the Scottish bar he worked within the European tradition of codified law. The way he said it made a cultural not a legal point. He was consciously not a ‘old boy’ and did not wish to be seen as part of the Anglo-British establishment (unlike other Scots one could mention). He saw himself as being formed by and working as a barrister with a modern European tradition and understood the need for a normal constitution.

The contrast with Blair

Aware that to call for a new constitution was too radical a step at that point he was happy to encourage discussion of it as a destination. The contrast with Blair is striking. Doubtless advised by Mandelson, Blair refused to allow any of the specific reforms to which he was committed to be projected as a new, overall settlement of any kind. Perhaps he sensed immediately the dangers of accountable democratic radicalism for his own ambition to exercise power.

After Smith died and Blair succeeded him, Trevor Smith at the Rowntree Trust was concerned to lock the new Labour leader into the commitments that Smith had set out. He had the Trust approach David Ward to suggest funding John Smith Memorial Lectures and inviting Blair to give the first lecture, where he could set out his own commitment to reform. Blair could hardly refuse. On 7 February 1996, Blair duly presented himself as Smith’s successor and quoted Elizabeth Smith as saying her husband’s “belief in democracy was to him as important as his socialism”. He also quoted from the Charter 88 lecture, where Smith said, “I want to see a fundamental shift in the balance of power between the citizen and the state – a shift away from an overpowering state to a citizen’s democracy where people have rights and powers and where they are served by accountable and responsive government”.

But after Blair ran through the changes Labour was now committed to thanks to Smith, he warned, “The reforms I have set out will transform our politics… We do not propose a Great Reform Bill which would attempt all these changes at once.” Indeed. Although Blair was to oversee what Lord Bingham would later describe as “constitutional change not experienced for centuries,” he refused all the pressures, as I know to my cost, to make a speech that tied them together. Nor, unlike Gordon Brown, did he allow himself to be put into a position where he needed to discuss the problems of codification and thus the transformation of the constitutional system as a whole, which Smith by contrast welcomed. Instead, Blair sought and gained the elective dictatorship Smith complained of - and then exercised it in the lead up to the Iraq war.

Looking back after Brexit

Does Smith’s description of the UK as an elected dictatorship still hold for the way the British state is ruled after the Brexit referendum? It does. As Prime Minister Theresa May drafted and sent the Article 50 letter withdrawing the UK from the EU without a full Cabinet discussion of its contents. Later she ambushed the Cabinet at Chequers with her proposed deal without even circulating the papers beforehand. Both were demonstrations of despotic Prime Ministerial power in action. The problem for May is not her capacity to exercise dictatorial centralisation but the fact that she lost the 2017 election. She has to rely on others for a Commons majority.

Because May depended on the votes of the Ulster unionists, 12 rebel Tory MPs were enough to force through an amendment by the slender majority of four that obliges the government to come back to the Commons for a meaningful vote to approve any deal it reaches with the EU. Thus May was not able to sign her deal without further approval as she would otherwise have done. As the Commons cannot agree on any outcome the current stalemate continues. Alongside the impasse public impatience grows, with a Hansard Society survey showing 54% of voters want a “strong leader who is willing to break the rules”.

An incoherent constitution cannot command general loyalty. By implementing Smith’s far-reaching reform programme while drawing back from integrating these reforms, Blair broke but did not replace the greatest strength of the old order, which was not its flexibility but the loyalty it commanded.

This was clear at the time. At least it was to some of us. I warned Blair as best I could against his “constitutional interruptus”. It is not that he lacked an overall approach of his own, however. New Labour was not aimless: it simply had a completely different approach to Smith who was attracted to the European model of consensual rule-based power. Blair's project was to embrace the very different example of global business. The efficiency and marketing strategies of the modern corporation shaped his vision of the state, with citizens turned into consumers. He developed a corporate form of manipulative populism, strategically centred on America. While pro-European, in terms of wanting to use the power and influence of Europe, it preserved the traditional British belief that we could enjoy a merely instrumental relationship to the European Union, exploiting it to our advantage without becoming European. In his slack and lazy fashion Cameron was to reproduce Blair’s approach. The consequence was that while both could argue membership benefited Britain economically and materially, they could not make the democratic case for participation in the EU; one that is unavoidably constitutional as well. It was a fatal weakness for Cameron's referendum campaign and can be witnessed to this day in the Blairite calls for a second referendum that only harp on about the losses and irrationality rather than the approach taken by, for example, Caroline Lucas or the Labour MP Clive Lewis.

John Smith, then, was a genuinly European social democrat who regarded Bill Clinton and ‘globalisation’ with justified suspicion. Blair and Brown caricatured him wrongly as a stuck-in-the-mud who relied on ‘one more heave’ to eject the Tories from office. This was unfair and inaccurate. For a start he risked his fresh leadership in 1993 by demanding that the Party Conference abolish the Trade Union block vote. This was a historic constitutional reform of the Labour Party that made its later modernisation possible. A brave European, he would have gone on to confront the modernisation that mattered most of all – not the adoption of the Euro (that Blair sought), but irreversible membership of the EU. Had he lived and achieve this Smith would have allied with Schroeder in Berlin and Chirac in Paris and refused UK participation in the illegal invasion of Iraq.

Today, we are in the depth of a Brexit crisis brought about by the collapse of trust in the way Britain is governed. But there was an alternative, another road that could have been taken. And would have been taken, by a potential Prime Minister who trusted himself and wanted to reform the UK while resisting the corruptions of neoliberalism. He would not have won the 1997 election with a landslide 180 majority as Blair did, for he would not have been backed by Murdoch and the Sun. But he would have beaten Major handsomely enough to set the UK on a far better course across the millennium.


You might ask, why am I, a person of the left, praising Smith who was clearly a man of the centre right? The answer is that I concluded back in the early 1980s that it was impossible for there to be a successful left-wing (that is, democratic and egalitarian) government in Britain within the confines of the country’s ‘empire state’. Constitutional democracy was and is a precondition for successful change. The many ways in which attempts at constitutional reform of the system as a whole, are marginalised, disrespected, mocked, ignored and disparaged, are all ways in which the old regime reproduces its malign influence, often from within our souls. The argument that we have to confront and replace the framework of the British state before it can deliver the progressive policies that are undoubtedly popular has now been taken up with greater sweep and audacity by Adam Ramsay in his essay Trying to Milk a Vulture. In particular, he takes account of the tentacles of British power in its overseas dependencies and tax-havens that have been exploited to the hilt by neoliberalism.

I am not saying everything would have been sweetness and light under a Smith premiership. He was not convinced of the need for PR. This was to pose an immediate crisis when the Plant Commission reported and endorsed the need for Labour to back electoral reform. Thanks to Jeff Rooker, the Labour MP who headed the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, I was aware of the New Zealand referendum that permitted voters to choose a voting system from a range of options. I acquired the excellently designed ballot papers that showed how the issue could be put to voters and launched a lobbying campaign to persuade Smith not to reject Plant recommendations but instead put the issue to the public. A wide range of collaborators, including Peter Mandelson, agreed to deliver the message and Smith responded by supporting the idea. But it was close-run, and he never relinquished his attachment to the constituency system.

At the same time he would probably not have put the Scottish parliament to a referendum but instead simply would have legislated it into existence as part of Labour’s manifesto commitments. Here, the Blair policy of grounding new assemblies (including a Mayor and assembly for London) in popular assent was to prove hugely important in terms of their legitimacy. Smith wanted a reformed but unified Britain. Its humiliation and likely fragmentation 25 years on creates the possibility of independent governments in Scotland and therefore England. Both will need constitutions and today this probably means ones created by citizens assemblies. Unless, that is, Farage gets there first. Smith, a democrat of the old school, would have been appalled.

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