John Smith (Labour Party leader)

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John Smith QC (13 September 1938 – 12 May 1994) was a British Labour politician who served as Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Labour Party from July 1992 until his death from a heart attack in May 1994.


  • If it is the case that one Department of this Government deliberately organised a leak to frustrate a Minister in the same Government, that is not only dirty tricks but a habit that is inimical to the practice of good government in this country.
    • Hansard, House of Commons, 6th series, vol. 89, col. 1157.
    • Speech on the Westland affair (15 January 1986).
  • In the course of a few weeks the one policy with which the Prime Minister was uniquely and personally associated, the contribution to policy of which he appears to have been most proud, has been blown apart, and with it has gone for ever any claim by the Prime Minister or the party that he leads to economic competence. He is the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued Government.
    • Hansard, House of Commons, 6th series, vol. 212, col. 22.
    • House of Commons speech (24 September 1992), referring to Black Wednesday.
  • The fundamental flaw in the individualism of the classical writers, and their modern counterparts in today's Conservative Party, is, I believe, their assumption that human beings conduct their lives on the basis of self-interested decisions taken in radical isolation from others. This thesis grotesquely ignores the intrinsically social nature of human beings and fails to recognize the capabilities that all people have to act in response to commitments and beliefs that clearly transcend any narrow calculation of personal advantage.
    • R. H. Tawney Lecture (Reclaiming the Ground) (March 1993), quoted in Guiding Light: The Collected Speeches of John Smith, ed. Brian Brivati (2000), p. 217
  • We ought, therefore, in the battle of ideas which is at the centre of the political struggle, to be confident in the strength of our intellectual case. But I believe we must also argue for our cause on the basis of its moral foundation. It is a sense of revulsion at injustice and poverty and denied opportunity, whether at home or abroad, which impels people to work for a better world, to become, as in our case, democratic socialists.
    • R. H. Tawney Lecture (Reclaiming the Ground) (March 1993), quoted in Guiding Light: The Collected Speeches of John Smith, ed. Brian Brivati (2000), p. 222
  • In response to the plummeting popularity of the Administration itself, revealed at Newbury and in the shire county elections, we have the Prime Minister's botched reshuffle. If we were to offer that tale of events to the BBC light entertainment department as a script for a programme, I think that the producers of "Yes, Minister" would have turned it down as hopelessly over the top. It might have even been too much for "Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'em". The tragedy for us all is that it is really happening—it is fact, not fiction. The man with the non-Midas touch is in charge. It is no wonder that we live in a country where the Grand National does not start and hotels fall into the sea.
    • Hansard, House of Commons, 6th series, vol. 226, col. 292.
    • House of Commons speech (9 June 1993). That year's Grand National horse race had been declared void after a start-line mishap. The Holbeck Hall Hotel in Scarborough began to fall into the sea on 3 June 1993 due to coastal erosion.
  • The opportunity to serve our country—that is all we ask.
    • Speech to Labour Party fund-raising dinner (11 May 1994, the night before his death).

Quotes about John Smith

  • He performed a completely different function from Neil Kinnock – he healed the wounds of the Party.
    • Tony Benn, diary entry (12 May 1994), quoted in Tony Benn, Free at Last! Diaries, 1990–2001 (2002), p. 239
  • Smith would have been a better leader than Tony Blair. It would have been a completely different party.
    • Tony Benn, quoted in Mark Stuart, John Smith: A Life (2005), p. 409
  • It can fairly be said of John Smith that he had all the virtues of a Scottish presbyterian, but none of the vices.
  • John was essentially a fudge leader. Tony Blair was the linear descendant of Neil Kinnock as a modernising Labour leader. John Smith was not.
    • Charles Clarke, quoted in Philip Gould, The Unfinished Revolution: How the Modernisers Saved the Labour Party (1998), p. 178
  • He is ready to embrace whatever changes are necessary, whether it be in policy or the party's internal structures. But his core values – a very Scottish species of practical Christian socialism – are not negotiable.
    • Ivo Dawnay, 'Scottish sword-play', The Financial Times (15 July 1992), p. 14
  • [I]f John Smith had lived I think it would have been a very great advantage for the party. I think he had a better understanding of the Labour movement than others do.
  • [Smith's death was] one of the greatest tragedies to beset the Labour Party...the country was robbed of a great Prime Minister.
    • Denis Healey, quoted in Mark Stuart, John Smith: A Life (2005), p. 410
  • John was a product of the Labour Party of Gaitskell, Wilson and Callaghan, and he had a deep commitment to preserving it, realising that certain things had to be done, like introducing OMOV in order to secure that kind of Party. In that sense, he was a moderniser, but it had to be done in a way that would not offend the traditional principles of the Party. He liked the way the Labour Party did things. New Labour felt that they couldn't make that old system work, and made significant changes – like Clause IV – wholesale reform of which John had rejected.
    • Norman Hogg, quoted in Mark Stuart, John Smith: A Life (2005), p. 408
  • John unified and therefore massively strengthened the Party by being completely unsectarian. Because he knew himself and was at ease with himself he treated everyone with respect.
    • Clare Short, 'John Smith's qualities and quality', Tribune (27 May 1994)
  • John gave the Party a feeling of what we were about. The best and only way of achieving Labour's values was through social justice. Social justice was what drove him, and he gave it back to the Labour Party.
    • Chris Smith, quoted in Mark Stuart, John Smith: A Life (2005), p. 409
  • He is hesitant about what they will do on the unions. I say, "You owe Mrs Thatcher a great deal. She has made it possible for unions to become led by moderates who will support the Labour leadership and you will hold the Conference and stop them passing dotty things." He agreed.
    • Woodrow Wyatt, diary entry (27 March 1986), quoted in Woodrow Wyatt, The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt, Volume One, ed. Sarah Curtis (1998), p. 107
  • I talked to John Smith... I asked him whether Labour would raise the top rate of forty per cent [in income tax] if they became the government and he was the Chancellor. He said, "No, not exactly, but we would have it graded upwards as they do in Germany and other countries. But we would not go back to the old penal rates."
    • Woodrow Wyatt, diary entry (24 March 1988), quoted in Woodrow Wyatt, The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt, Volume One, ed. Sarah Curtis (1998), p. 524
  • I talked to John Smith. He said, "I don't know if it has percolated down to people like you yet but we would run a very tough government, not a reckless one as there was before."
    • Woodrow Wyatt, diary entry (10 May 1990), quoted in Woodrow Wyatt, The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt, Volume Two, ed. Sarah Curtis (1999), p. 291