openDemocracyUK: Feature

Remembering Trevor Smith: An unsung hero who drove UK democratic change

The late Lord Smith of Clifton, who passed away at 83 in April, was unusual in translating innovative ideas and deeply held principles into action

Stuart Weir
9 June 2021, 7.00am
Trevor Smith was a man of entrepreneurial vision and remarkable political energy
Nigel McDowell/Ulster

Trevor Smith, more formally known as Professor Lord Smith of Clifton, was an unsung hero of the surge towards democratic reform in the 1990s – and he is being unsung still. Smith died aged 83 on 24 April and his death has received only patchy notice since. This neglect is symbolic of the governing class’s indifference and resentment towards efforts to reform our weak democratic arrangements – an attitude for which we are paying the price under Boris Johnson’s careless regime.

Smith was a key financial and intellectual force driving the Blair government’s reluctant series of legislative changes when democratic movement Charter 88 was in its heyday under Anthony Barnett. The movement, along with other organisations, campaigned for open and accountable government, devolution, checks on government power and parliamentary reforms. openDemocracy is part of Smith’s (and Barnett’s) legacy.

Smith was a man of entrepreneurial vision and remarkable political energy, who was unusual in translating his innovative ideas and deeply held principles into action. He was a political scientist of distinction when he took on the chair of the Joseph Rowntree Social Services Trust in 1987, which he transformed and renamed the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust (JRRT). The trust was not a charitable foundation and Smith took full advantage of its freedom from charitable constraints, pursuing a strong democratic direction.

We met when he became the trust’s representative on the New Statesman board just as I took on the magazine’s editorship in 1987. He was not obviously my type of person: besuited with a waistcoat, tie and shined shoes, a High Church Anglican and member of the Reform Club. However, I soon began to relish his candour, wit and salty sense of humour.

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Margaret Thatcher’s cavalier assaults on liberties had alarmed many in the 1980s and created a constituency demanding reform. But the New Statesman’s conceited chief executive (who was being foisted on me) refused to fund my proposal to launch Charter 88 – something I had envisaged as a joint promotion exercise for the magazine as well as a political enterprise. So I turned to Smith – who agreed at once to my request for a £5,000 loan, telling me, “The proposals in the draft charter for improving democracy and protecting civil liberties coincided exactly with my thinking.” Many others felt the same – we soon obtained backing from some 350 well-known signatories and the public signed up in their thousands.

Smith went on to sustain Charter 88 – recognised by The Daily Telegraph as the most successful pressure group of the 1990s – with consistent funding. Its success in mobilising opinion obliged Tony Blair to legislate, albeit reluctantly and incompletely, to fulfil the charter’s programme for reform.

Human rights, or ‘civil liberties’, was the bond between Smith, Barnett and myself. In 1991 we launched Democratic Audit, based until the early 2000s at Essex University, to audit the democratic performance of the British constitution. One of its first projects was a major study of breaches of human rights and their fallible protection – Keir Starmer took time off from his chambers to contribute. And later on, when Blair was introducing anti-terrorism legislation, Smith commissioned an audit analysis of the new laws and the actual propensity for terrorism among the Muslim populations.

He was not obviously my type of person. But I soon began to relish his candour, wit and salty sense of humour

Smith also initiated other projects designed to encourage a broader democratic culture in the UK and to promote constitutional debate. One was a 13-year series of opinion polls, the State of the Nation, measuring public attitudes towards constitutional issues over time. The polls revealed the public rated economic and social rights as highly as they did traditional civil and political rights. Under Smith, JRRT also bought a house in Soho, central London, as a shared residence for homeless pressure groups.

In 1991, Smith moved to Northern Ireland to take up the appointment of vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, a post he held until 1999. There, Smith took a wholly non-sectarian and impartial role, and he very nearly pulled off an audacious project to establish a ‘peaceline’ campus in northern Belfast, to be built equidistantly between the Catholic Falls Road and Protestant Shankill Road, as a symbol of reconciliation (or as the officialese had it, a ‘confidence restoring measure’). He steered this proposal through the self-regarding politics of Northern Ireland and Westminster to the point where the Clintons and Blairs were to attend a ceremony to mark the turning of the first sod. Unfortunately, he retired too soon, and his successor aborted the plan.

Smith was a life-long Liberal, and then Liberal Democratic, but he was denied the influence on strategy and party politics that he merited. He served as the party spokesman on Northern Ireland in the Lords, but he became an inconvenient party man, voting against the party’s volte face over student tuition fees, opposing its entry into coalition with the Conservatives and calling on party leader Nick Clegg to resign. He held the House of Lords in disdain, campaigning vigorously for its abolition and his place in it.

Early in his academic career he co-wrote ‘Anti Politics: Consensus, Reform and Protest in Britain’, a warning of the emerging divide between politics and the people, but he was largely content to act as a political commentator. His autobiography, ‘Workhouse to Westminster’, is a bitingly candid, funny and gossipy account of his life. Smith adored his father, who spent time as a boy with his family in a workhouse, polishing the stone floor.

Smith resigned from the Reform Trust in 2017 and from the Lords in 2019.

He also helped me save the New Statesman as a political journal. The over-ambitious board had lost something like £250,000 in a crisis and in desperation, the chair, Phillip Whitehead, intended to sell to an Irish media group who planned to turn the Statesman into a news magazine. Smith could not withstand Whitehead, who was building up support. He warned me that my CEO and I were about to be ambushed at a meeting with representatives of the Irish group.

So I turned up forewarned. Once at the meeting, I immediately and ostentatiously began taking notes. “What are you doing?” Whitehead demanded. I replied: “I think our readers deserve to know what is being done to their magazine, don’t you?” And that was the end of that plan.

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