After Smith

Ross McKibbin

Like many others I have been puzzled by the reaction to John Smith’s death. It was reported as though it were at least that of a prime minister, and his funeral was, as the BBC noted, in effect a state funeral. The decision of both the BBC and ITV to double the ordinary length of their evening news broadcasts on the day of his death could be put down to the social democratish inclinations of the programmers, but the speed with which the coverage had to be assembled suggests that it was more instinctive. Furthermore, the reaction of the press wasn’t very different. All the quality papers reported Mr Smith’s death and its consequences copiously, and in general (with the conspicuous exception of the Financial Times) what was said was sympathetic, even elegiac. Most of those papers who a week earlier were noting how fragile the local elections showed Labour’s position to be, were now lamenting the loss of the next prime minister. The same was true of the tabloids. We might expect the Mirror to grieve at length; more unexpected was that the Sun should do so as well.

The political parties also behaved impeccably. The eulogies I heard – Major, Beckett, Ashdown and Lang – were all remarkable for their dignity, sensitivity and generosity. Mr Major’s was the best speech I have heard him make and Mr Lang – who I have hitherto associated only with heavy-handed bureaucracy – was genuinely moved and moving. The gasp in the hall when the chairman of the Scottish Conservative Conference announced Mr Smith’s death captured something of the larger feeling. Clearly, most of those who registered a reaction felt that Mr Smith’s death was a special event demanding special recognition.

The political classes appear to have been surprised by their own behaviour and immediately tried to give it some meaning. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ construed it in similar ways. For the Left Mr Smith’s death was an opportunity to restore to politics that sense of social justice and higher purpose which he was believed to represent. When the Prime Minister spoke to the Conservatives’ Scottish Conference the following day he argued that the reaction to Mr Smith’s death demonstrated that politicians did not deserve the contempt in which the public held them: what people saw at Question Time was superficial – media froth. Furthermore, it showed that the motives of all parties in their policies towards, for example, the poor were benign, however much they differed as to methods. For Mr Major, what had happened was an affirmation of ‘Britishness’ and of the British political culture, of its fairness and good intent.

The death of any Labour leader is obviously an event of political importance, particularly when the death is unexpected. But Mr Smith’s death has come to be loaded with an ideological and political significance at first sight quite disproportionate to his achievements. He was a cabinet minister for only a short time, though definitely a coming man; he was held responsible by many for Labour’s defeat in the last election; and he was an exceptionally cautious leader of the opposition. Why, then, this ebullition of sentiment? His Scottishness is perhaps part of the answer. He never received the ill-natured abuse which was directed at Neil Kinnock. But the English think of the Welsh as soft, as windy rhetoricians, and so easy game. The Scots, however, as an imperial race are believed to be dangerous; when roused they are apt to turn nasty. You tangle with them at your peril. Certainly, Labour’s Scottish frontbenchers – Robin Cook (especially), Gordon Brown, Donald Dewar and, of course, John Smith himself – have a terse, combative Parliamentary style light-years from Mr Kinnock’s and this has earned them a grudging but general respect. Mr Smith was also thought (and plainly was) a thoroughly ‘decent’ man, an embodiment of ‘British decency’. ‘Decent’ has been the adjective invariably applied to him in the last week or two and always in the Orwellian sense. This doubtless gave him additional stature, but it seems unlikely that ‘decency’ alone can explain the general dismay.

Mr Major’s reaction – his talk of British fairness and good intent – can be interpreted in two ways. It can be seen as a matter of simple calculation: a method by which Conservative policies can be given a consoling gloss. Or perhaps he really wants the restoration of a more civilised and consensual politics. The first alternative is yet another sign that the Conservatives do now feel vulnerable on a number of scores, particularly poverty. But there is no reason to believe that the Government’s policies are benign in inspiration. Rather the reverse. Lady Thatcher as prime minister was entirely open in her determination to destroy those quasi-constitutional conventions of British political life which underlay the hated ‘consensus’ and the country’s decline. Moreover, the language of a bastard neo-liberalism cannot and does not conceal the vengeful malice that has driven so much of the Government’s social policy. Many of those who have suffered were meant to suffer; that others suffered as well was inevitable but unintended.

I feel more sympathetic to the second possibility. John Major has recently found being John Major rather a handicap; anything which restores something of the old restraint and courtesy is unquestionably to his advantage. Furthermore, being a Conservative minister over the last few years cannot have been easy. Under Lady Thatcher cabinets seem to have been conducted either just below or just above the line of hysteria and no one was certain of his (and even more of her) place. Since then things have gone from bad to worse. A Conservative minister or would-be minister clearly now faces much more mental strain than was the case in the old days. I doubt, therefore, that Mr Major’s hopes that Mr Smith’s death will revive something of the old spirit is anything other than heartfelt.

I also doubt that any such revival is now possible. The dynamic of the Conservative Party and its effective domination by the Right means that there can be no serious change in its course. Even on the day of Mr Smith’s funeral the Government completed the sordid manoeuvres by which the Disabled Bill was counted out and thus tarnished the reputation, probably irreparably, of one of the few ministers who actually had a reputation. In all the larger departments, particularly those deemed ideologically crucial (see John Patten or Michael Howard), the juggernaut rolls on and Mr Major could not stop it even if he wished. Nor can he suppress the seemingly unconstrained ambition of those around him, for his success is a product of the same political system which they intend shall promote them. Above all, the social and political foundations of the political culture both he and the Left say they wish to re-establish have been destroyed or greatly weakened, partly by ineluctable economic change, partly by the deliberate actions of the Conservative Party itself.

It is this which makes the notion of a ‘restoration’, inaugurated in some way by Mr Smith’s death, so impossible. The old system was more civilised and productive than the new, and we are right to mourn its passing, but it cannot be restored; nor should we try. It is an awareness of this, an acceptance that some things have now come to an end, which explains the otherwise inexplicable. People have reacted to Mr Smith’s death, and this seems to me the closest analogy, as they at first reacted to Mr Heseltine’s proposals for coal – with outrage and a determination that it should not happen like this. But in the end they could do nothing and did nothing. It is the sheer implausibility of the idea that Mr Smith’s death alone could reverse the irreversible, the too self-conscious symbolism of the whole thing, which suggests that people were not welcoming a restoration: they were, rather, bidding a fond farewell to a political system whose passing they regretted but which they knew to be gone.

Yet there is no reason why the outcome should not be more hopeful than in the case of the miners. In some ways radical constitutional and institutional reform is now more conceivable than at any time since the Forties – when the opportunity was missed. The system that the Tories have put in place in the last 15 years, though very powerful and meant to last, is highly unstable and contingent, if only because so many regard it as illegitimate. Furthermore, the Conservatives have (so to speak) cleared the ground. However tempted a Labour government is to be prudent (and the temptations are very strong) the constitutional vacuum left by Lady Thatcher and her successors will have to be filled. In effect, Labour will have to create an alternative system, but one which does have democratic legitimacy. This will require toughness and a willingness to think more clearheadedly about power and its constraints than Labour leaders have done in the past. The best way the Labour Party and its well-wishers can commemorate John Smith is to accept that the future does hold possibilities – but not simply as restoration. Decency and social justice can be recovered, but only within a political system whose existence is guaranteed by something other than the rules of the game and good intentions.

This puts the Labour Party, as it prepares to elect a new leader, in a difficult position. It needs someone who can win the next election and someone who can then hold and exploit power. In the circumstances of modern Britain these require rather different talents. The new leader will, on the one hand, need to woo and comfort a rather naive and fearful English electorate, while preserving the Party’s predominance in Scotland and Wales. On the other, he or she will need to take risks, think unthinkable thoughts (like formal arrangements with the Liberal Democrats and drastic reform of the electoral and Parliamentary systems) and show some of the political determination traditionally practised by the Conservatives, but not by Labour. He or she will need, in other words, to combine the qualities of John Smith and those of (let us say) Paul Keating.

This combination is unusual and none of the likely candidates for the leadership seems at the moment to possess it. The obvious solution – that Tony Blair should lead Labour until and during the election and immediately resign in favour of Robin Cook on the morn of victory is presumably not a very attractive one to Mr Blair, or perhaps even to Mr Cook. Of all the candidates, Robin Cook is probably the one most likely to do what the next Labour prime minister must do: he is clever, an effective debater and both radical and sceptical. But he is, equally, probably the one most likely as leader of the opposition to alienate the English electorate. He is an over-dangerous Scot; one you might fear rather than respect. Gordon Brown, who should have been a very serious candidate, now appears unacceptable on either ground: he seems neither likely to win an election nor to be an adventurous prime minister. This may be a misreading of him. He clearly has not been helped by having to propound the quasi-Treasury view that John Smith imposed on him. This is bad luck – but his recent attempts to recover lost ground have not been convincing. Margaret Beckett, though she has shown considerable presence as acting leader, has not so far displayed the authority or sharpness Labour needs in a new leader. This leaves John Prescott and Tony Blair. Mr Prescott ought to be a strong candidate: he has been an effective shadow minister – always superior to his Tory opposites – and is a good platform performer who also believes that the Labour Party does stand for something. But he is not smooth; and I expect that, in the end, a smoother man will carry the day. Which bring us to Tony Blair. He, too, is an impressive performer with all the rhetorical skills an opposition leader needs. Quite what he believes, I am less certain. If he actually thinks some of the things he has been saying as shadow Home Secretary, then Labour under his leadership could be in for trouble. The real danger with Mr Blair is that the wooing could become permanent; or, since there are different kinds of wooing, that the sort of electoral massage favoured by opposition leaders could become permanent.

All this, of course, only goes to say what the Party’s electors already know – that the choice is not easy. In the absence of my preferred solution – Blair until the election, Cook thereafter – I suppose Labour should choose Blair and keep its fingers crossed.