On 26 March 2019, Ian Murray applied to the Backbench Business Committee for a general debate to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of the then Labour Party leader John Smith.

John Smith

Following a heart attack, John Smith died on 12 May 1994.

He was first elected to the House of Commons in June 1970, for North Lanarkshire and, following boundary changes, represented Monklands East from June 1983 until his death.

He served as a minister in the Wilson and Callaghan Governments from 1974-79; after holding a number of Opposition posts, he was elected leader of the Labour Party after the Party’s defeat at the 1992 General Election.

Ministerial and Opposition Posts

Ministerial Posts: Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Energy) (1974–1975); Minister of State (Department of Energy) (1975–1976); Minister of State (Privy Council Office) (1976–1978); Secretary of State for Trade (1978–1979)

Opposition Posts: Shadow Secretary of State (1979–1982); Shadow Secretary of State (1982–1983); Shadow Secretary of State (1983–1984); Shadow Secretary of State (1984–1987); Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer (1987–1992); Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition (1992–1994)
(Source: House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, Members of the House of Commons since 1979, p211)

The House paid tribute to Mr Smith on the afternoon of his death. John Major, the Prime Minister, outlined Mr Smith’s skills as a parliamentarian, his nature and his determination:

John Smith was one of the outstanding parliamentarians of modern politics. He was skilled in the procedures of this House, skilled in upholding its traditions, a fair-minded but, I can say as well as any Member in the House, tough fighter for what he believed in and, above all, he was outstanding in parliamentary debate.


He had no malice. There were things that he cared for passionately. He lived for them; he fought for them; he cared for them. But he carried his fight fairly, without malice, without nastiness. The bruises that existed soon faded after a dispute with John Smith.


I always found him courteous, fair minded and constructive, but also tough for what he was seeking and what he believed in.

Margaret Beckett, who served as the acting leader of the Labour Party, following Mr Smith’s death, spoke after Mr Major:

There are few people the announcement of whose death would bring tears to the eyes of everyone who knew them; John Smith was such a man. He was, as the Prime Minister said, a man of formidable intellect, of the highest ethics and of staunch integrity.


He said to me recently, “Why would anyone bother to go into politics, unless it was to speak up for people who cannot speak up for themselves?” That feeling for others, along with his hatred of injustice, was the force which drove him—the service to which he gave his life.

Last night, he spoke at a gala dinner in London. He was in fine fettle and in high spirits. He spoke not from a text but from notes, and when he sat down I congratulated him especially on his final sentence—spoken, as it was, off the cuff and from the heart. They were almost the last words I heard him say. He looked at the assembled gathering, and he said: The opportunity to serve our country—that is all we ask. Let it stand as his epitaph.

The John Smith Trust

The John Smith Trust was formed in 1996 to provide a permanent memorial to one of Britain’s best-loved politicians with the aim of honouring him by promoting the ideals he held dear. It seeks to promote good governance, social justice and the rule of law by nurturing a new generation of leaders committed to making a difference in their countries and societies.

John Smith Centre for Public Service, University of Glasgow

On 29 April 2019, it was announced that Kezia Dugdale, MSP, Scottish Labour Leader (2015 to 2017) is to be the new Director of the John Smith Centre for Public Service. “Her mission will be to rebuild trust and faith in the political process that has become discredited and disrespected in recent years”.

The Centre sits within the School of Social & Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. It “promotes a positive vision for representative politics”; and encourages “the next generation of representatives to see politics as one of the most effective ways to pursue change”.

Press articles on the 20th anniversary of John Smith’s death

John McTernan, “John Smith would have led us to a decent world”, Guardian, 12 May 2014

Andy McSmith, “Remembering John Smith 20 years on: What would his Government have looked like?”, Independent, 12 May 2014

Biographies (available from the Library)

Chris Bryant, Tony Blair, Neil Kinnock et al, John Smith: an appreciation, 1994

Andy McSmith, John Smith: a life 1938-1994, 1994

Gordon Brown and James Naughtie, John Smith Life and soul of the party, 1994

Mark Stuart, John Smith a life, 2005

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