The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1994Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Tribute to John Smith – 12 May 1994

Below is Mr Major’s Commons statement made in tribute to John Smith, the Leader of the Opposition, who had died that morning, 12th May 1994.


The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

When I heard the tragic news of John Smith this morning, I thought it right that the House should meet this afternoon to pay tribute to a distinguished parliamentarian and then adjourn. I do not believe that there would have been the stomach for any other business in the House today.

I know that the whole House would wish me first to express my deep and warm sympathy for Mrs. Smith and for John Smith’s family, his wife and his daughters. In the House, we have lost a formidable senior Member of very rare ability.

To the Labour party also, I offer my deep sympathy. After some serious hammer blows that they have faced among their colleagues in recent months, they have lost a leader and, I know, for many of them a deep and close friend of many years’ standing. But above all, Elizabeth Smith, Sarah, Jane and Catherine have lost a husband, a father and a part of their lives which can never be replaced. 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. As one would expect of a barrister and Queen’s counsel, he was always master of his brief, however complex and however detailed it might be. But beyond being master of his brief, on good days–and for him there were many good days–his speeches could shape and move the will of the House in the way that few Members are able to do.

Over recent years, both as Prime Minister and as Chancellor of the Exchequer, I had the pleasure and the privilege of facing John Smith across this Dispatch Box. I learned on those occasions to acknowledge the skill and the wit with which he mastered his arguments. He had that rare ability to switch with speed from irony to sarcasm to invective and to fact, and sometimes, in the heat of parliamentary debate, to half fact, on every occasion knowing exactly how and when to move from one mood to the other for maximum parliamentary and political effect. Those are formidable skills, they are rare skills and, even for those against whom those skills were deployed, it is hard to bear that we will never see or hear those skills in this House again.

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. In our parliamentary democracy, it is the fate of party leaders to dispute, to scorn, to disagree. We have an adversarial system of politics–the best in the world, I believe, but adversarial. So it was in the nature of my political relationship with John Smith that we frequently clashed in public and in the House, yet afterwards, in private, we met often and amiably–again, no bruises.

Inevitably, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have to conduct business in private and on confidential matters. Whenever we did, I always found him courteous, fair minded and constructive, but also tough for what he was seeking and what he believed in. We would share a drink– sometimes tea, sometimes not tea–and our discussions on those occasions ranged far beyond the formal business that we were transacting. To the despair of my private office and, I suspect, sometimes of his, the meetings extended far beyond the time that was immediately scheduled for them.

Under our constitution, the role of the Leader of the Opposition is unique. It is a vital role–not in government, but vital to the determination of the way in which we conduct our affairs and to the protection of people who oppose the Government on a range of issues. The Leader of the Opposition is in the anteroom of power, yet not in the seat of power itself. In that position–perhaps for a short time, perhaps for a long time–he must maintain his party’s hunger for government and never let that appetite diminish. He must remain confident and never let the years of waiting sour or embitter him or the nature of public life. He must keep alive hope and ambition and must keep sharp the cutting edge of his own party’s beliefs. If I may judge him from this side of the House, it seemed to me that John Smith trod that path for his party and its supporters in the country with skill and assurance that few have matched.

Political differences are not the be-all and end-all of relationships for Members of the House. When I think of John Smith, I think of an opponent, not an enemy; and when I remember him, I shall do so with respect and affection. When I think of his premature death, I shall think of the waste that it has brought to our public life–the waste of a remarkable political talent; the waste of a high and honourable ambition to lead our country; the waste of a man in public life who, in all his actions, retained a human touch; and, in some ways above all, the waste of the tranquillity and happiness that his past endeavours would have so richly deserved in the years to come.

Let me end where I began. In the weeks that lie immediately ahead, John’s family will need all their courage. Let us show by what we say and do today that, while we cannot bear for them their pain, we can offer them the comfort of shared respect and shared grief.