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Rembering John Smith and how different things might have been

John SmithJohn Smith died twenty years ago today.

How things would have been different had he lived to be Prime Minister is uncertain, and speculation always flawed. The flaws, disappointments and criticisms of John Smith’s premiership will never be considered. I would be confident about three and a half things:


Education policy would be very different. England could by now have a genuinely comprehensive system of secondary education, reflected in the 1994 policy document Opening Doors to a Learning Society; it was prepared under Smith’s leadership (though launched days after Blair’s election as leader) but never heard of again. Tony Blair appointed David Blunkett to the education portfolio and policy shifted radically to the right, upsetting and angering many in the party including Roy Hattersley.

On higher education, the Dearing Report, commissioned by the Major Government would have reported, but I suggest proposals for a system of tuition fees would be rejected and Dearing’s support for grants for students from low-income backgrounds would have been endorsed by a Smith Government. We have insight into Smith’s thinking from a furore that took place in the autumn of 1993 when a draft policy document on the subject was leaked and the party re-asserted the importance of the state support for students in higher education.

Employment rights

The Employment Relations Act 1999 introduced by the Blair Government introduced some important but limited trade union rights into law. Blair took pride in broadly retaining Thatcher’s anti-union laws. Under Smith we can expect employment rights to have been extended far more radically, reflecting Smith’s promise of a Charter of Workers’ Rights in a speech to the TUC in 1993. Jon Sopel in his early biography of Tony Blair, described Blair as ‘furious’ with Smith’s speech.

An inclusive party

John Smith would have led a more inclusive government, appointing and promoting people from a wider spectrum of the Labour Party. Those individual ministers would have in their own way affected Britain in ways we will never know. (For more discussion see two very readable biographies of Smith by Andy McSmith and Mark Stuart.)

Tony Blair

Finally, but less confidently, because it is inherently difficult to predict, I don’t think Tony Blair would have succeeded John Smith had Smith lived past an election victory in 1997. The political fortunes of individuals fluctuate, and ‘expected successors‘ change rapidly; there is no guarantee Blair would have been in the right place at the right time. More importantly, as Blair matured politically his right wing trajectory would have been more apparent in time, and a Labour Party which won power in 1997 without him as leader would have been confident enough to reject him.

I suspect Gordon Brown would have succeeded Smith unless they had fallen out previously – most likely over whether Britain should join the Euro. This is an example of a policy area where it is easy to speculate – Smith was a passionate pro-European – but it is impossible to know. What we do know is what happened under Tony Blair, and by remembering John Smith today we can at least remember the Blair ministry might never have happened.


  1. John Reid says:

    The penultimate paragraph, pure comedy gold

  2. Robert says:

    Totally agree with your article what a shame John passed away without proving his labour socialist credentials and keeping the right wing Tory Lite out of power.

  3. swatantra says:

    These are all maybe’s. Smith wasn’t all that exceptional. I have a feeling that he would have been defeated by circumstances anyway, or the Unions. Reality often manages to catch up with Labour whoever is at the top.

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