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What if … John Smith had lived?

At 8.05am on 12 May 1994 – exactly 20 years ago – John Smith died during an early morning bath in his Barbican flat. He had suffered a second, massive heart attack. Smith’s death aged only 55 robbed the Labour party and the country of a likely Prime Minister. The outpouring of public grief in the week after his death was both genuine and highly unusual from a British electorate that rarely holds its politicians in high esteem.


The tragic circumstances of Smith’s death inevitably make us ponder how the course of political history would have differed had he lived.


A Smith-led Labour party would surely have won the 1997 General Election, but probably not by the landslide margin that Tony Blair achieved.


Smith, who always held to the view that governments lost elections, rather than oppositions winning them, correctly sensed in his bones that the Conservatives were finished following ‘Black Wednesday’ on 16 September 1992, when John Major was forced, in effect, to devalue the pound. The Conservatives lost their long-standing lead on economic competence and never got it back.


Moreover, the Conservatives were bitterly divided over Europe, and had bled to death for nearly eighteen months while debating the Maastricht Treaty in the House of Commons.


And yet, Smith would not have won the 1997 election by as much as Tony Blair because his successor was able to tap into the aspirations of middle class voters south of the Watford Gap in a way that Smith, as a more old-fashioned Scottish Socialist, would not have done to the same extent.


The reason was Smith’s consistent belief that the better-off should pay proportionally more in income tax. Indeed, a Smith-led government rather than a Blair-Brown government would probably have set the top rate of income tax at 50p in the pound.  Blair, of course, categorically rejected the idea of a 50p rate, and reaped the electoral reward with Middle England.


Now, twenty years later, Ed Miliband seeks once more to reintroduce a higher rate of income tax. The lesson appears to be that Blair was right and Smith and Miliband are wrong: going into an election promising to increase taxes (as Smith did as Shadow Chancellor in 1992) may put off aspirant floating voters.


Another important effect of a narrower Smith victory in 1997 is that the Tories would have suffered a nasty defeat, but not a catastrophic one. Perhaps just over 200 Conservatives would have been spared, leaving the party with a sporting chance of winning the 2001 election. So, it is at least plausible to argue that a Smith victory in 1997 would not have destroyed the Tories for a generation in the way that Blair’s landslide did. In such circumstances Michael Portillo might have clung onto his Enfield Southgate constituency, and it is probable that in such circumstances he would have emerged as Tory leader. A Portillo-led Conservative party might have embarked on a very necessary modernisation of its policies and image at a much earlier stage, without going through three wasted leaders before they finally found a reformer in David Cameron.


It is also important to remember that John Smith wasn’t a saint. He had his fair share of failings. He wasn’t a modern politician in the sense of understanding that political messages need repeating over and over again if they are to hit home with an apathetic voting public. In fact, he often used to say to his advisers: ‘I given that speech once. Why do I need to do it again?’ The Scottish Advocate (barrister) in him was so used to returning case notes at the end of criminal trials in Edinburgh, that as a politician he always felt that he should move onto the next challenge.


Roy Hattersley used to joke that Smith never changed anything he ever believed in. This is true in the sense that he was so sure of his own progressive values, which had been passed down from on his father’s knee in the Highlands, that he didn’t see the need to articulate his message properly. Labour under Ed Miliband has the opposite problem: it is too defensive and unsure of its own values that it hasn’t yet articulated a narrative to voters about what Labour stands for.


Smith’s other main failing is that he tended to look down on the ‘dark arts’ of politics. Notably, Peter Mandelson – the arch proponent of ‘spin’ under both Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair – was cast into the outer darkness under Smith. Since Smith’s death, we’ve all learned to love Peter, or at least the importance of having a professionally-minded person with the level of nous of Peter in charge of Labour’s political campaigning.


When good men die at a relatively young age, we all mourn their loss. There is an inevitable a sense of what might have been. The Labour movement is especially reverential towards its fallen leaders. (Witness the same outpouring of genuine grief when Hugh Gaitskell died in January 1963). Many socialists like to think that things would have better under a Smith-led Government, but would they? Would Labour have really governed for 13 continuous years as they did under Tony Blair? Or would the Labour party have succumbed early on to its usual failings of economic incompetence and political disunity as the Tories bounced back?


Smith’s death 20 years ago this week was tragic, but at least he never had to suffer the damage done to a politician’s political reputation of having to take the tough decisions of government. Instead, he rests peacefully on the holy island of Iona, alongside ancient Scottish kings, revered and largely forgotten in equal measure.


Mark Stuart is the biographer of John Smith. A Life (Politico’s, 2005).







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