A Good and Honourable Politician, Didn’t They Die Out Centuries Ago?

Back in the early 90s, I was renting a room in a Georgian town house in Stockbridge, Edinburgh. The house was owned by a gay couple. They were what you would call ‘up and coming’ in gay circles. I had not long ‘come out’ and was living there with my first ever boyfriend. In what I imagined were once the servants quarters on the top floor. I fell in love with the place when I saw that the staircase from the ground floor to the first, each step had a pile of old newspapers and magazines on them. Which to me screamed ‘odd’ and I was drawn to ‘odd’. We got on well and had many fun times together. One of the not so fun times however was a dinner party they had been kind enough to invite me to. I felt extremely honoured.

I’d seen tables set in a similar way in the army but I’d never sat at a table with so much cutlery and so many glasses. Indeed I’d never been to a dinner party where a different wine was served with each course including desert. The food, wine and table setting I couldn’t fault.

The company however left a lot to be desired. Most of the guests were members of the then Scottish National Party. With what I will say lacking in sartorial elegance or what my mother would say ‘looking like they’d been dragged through a hedge backwards.’ In addition, I couldn’t believe the topics of conversation. Really ugly and disgusting comments about gays, none of which were even challenged by the hosts.

I suppose one of the qualities of the ‘up and coming’ was the ‘don’t upset the applecart approach’. Personally I’d have tipped the bloody applecart and all its contents over all their heads but as a guest and a relative nobody I bit my tongue and pierced my palm with a fork prong to keep myself from saying something I might have come to regret.

Afterwards I thanked the couple for inviting me and complimented them on the dinner and the ambiance and then asked as politely as I could ‘Can you do me a favour, next time you have a dinner with similar guests and want to invite me. Please don’t.’  They smiled in reply. Although to me it seemed more of a cringe. 

I think it was that evening when my admiration for politicians began to dwindle. Until I was reminded of one who I saw as a good and honourable politician. A Labour politician who courted friendships and was admired and respected by colleagues on both sides of the house. Born in Baddaroch, New Galloway.  The eldest of three children in 1938. In 1956 he went to Glasgow University where he did two degrees. The first in history and the second in law in 1959. . At university he became involved in debating and in 1962 was the winner of the Observer Mace debating competition. Becoming MP for North Lanarkshire in 1970. Which became Monklands East in 1983. The same year that he became a QC, and during the General Election he campaigned for unemployment. Arguing that the Conservatives had caused deindustrialization and that labour would increase investment and therefore employment. He took 50% of the vote. But nationally labour were badly beaten.

He was first voted to the Shadow Cabinet in 1979 and then every year after until 1992. When Callaghan made him Secretary of State for Trade he became the youngest member of the cabinet. Despite him having a quiet modest manner and taking a moderate stance politically he was a witty and often scathing speaker. He was named parliamentarian of the year twice. In 86 for his performances during the Westland controversy which resulted in the resignation of Leon Brittan and again in 89 for taking Nigel Lawson to task over the economy and his difficult relationship with Sir Alan Walters who at the time was Mrs Thatcher’s economic advisor. In a witty attack on Lawson he sang the tune to ‘Neighbours’ lampooning the differences between Lawson and Walters. Two days later he made another scathing attack which resulted in first Lawson resigning closely followed by Walters. 

Due to a health scare in ‘88 he had to make considerable lifestyle changes including becoming a Munro bagger. Munros are mountains which are over 3000 feet (914 metres) above sea level at the summit of which there are 227 in the Scottish Highlands and he had bagged 108. 

As leader of the opposition he proved to be a thorn in the side of Thatcher and Major. Referring to Mr Major as the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued Government. Labelling the Conservatives plans to lower income tax to 20% as irresponsible. He successfully abolished the trade union block vote and replaced it with one member one vote and committed  a future labour government to having a Scottish Parliament. By May 1994 labour had a 23% lead in the polls. On the 12th after giving a speech to 500 people at a fundraising dinner at a Park Lane Hotel in London where he said “The opportunity to serve our country- that is all we ask” he had a massive heart attack and died. 

The man was John Smith and in my opinion was the greatest Prime Minister this country never had. And perhaps last of the ‘decent and honourable’ politicians. 

On his tombstone on the Isle of Iona is inscribed are the words of the poet Alexander Pope in his Essay on Man, 1733-1734 that still ring true today ‘An honest man’s the noblest work of God.

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