Stuart Weir reviews a new autobiography of Lord Smith, an energetic crusader for democracy and social justice – and a vital ally during stormy times at the New Statesman magazine.
The chances are that you haven’t heard of Trevor Smith, or
to be more precise, Professor Lord Smith of Clifton. Yet he was the prime
financial and intellectual force behind the surge towards democracy in the
1990s when Charter 88 was rampant under Anthony Barnett and the Blair
governments were legislating for a spate of constitutional reforms.
Smith is a man of singular entrepreneurial vision and remarkable
political energy who most unusually followed through his many ideas into
action. He was a political scientist of distinction when he took on the chair
of the Joseph Rowntree Social Services Trust in 1987 and transformed it into
the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust with a strong democratic direction. You should
know that he became a close friend and colleague of mine.
His autobiography, Workhouse to Westminster,
is published this month and gives a nice rollicking account of his family
background as well as his professional career. Smith’s father spent time as a
boy with his family in a workhouse, polishing the stone floor. As well as Smith’s
12 years spent proactively chairing the Trust, the book covers his ‘Lucky Jim”
years as an academic, his time as a reforming Vice Chancellor of Ulster
University and as a Lib Dem activist and Lib Dem peer in the House of Lords (where
he campaigned vigorously for its abolition).
Smith’s account of his life is often bitingly candid, very
funny and frequently gossipy (on, for example, the Jeremy Thorpe affair). I
first met him when he was the Trust’s representative on the New Statesman board just as I took on the editorship. He was not
obviously my type. He dressed like an old fogey, was a High Church Anglican,
and a member of the Reform Club. But I soon saw that he was not on the board just
to make up the numbers – and I began to relish his directness and salty sense
Not long after Smith joined the New Statesman board, the
magazine’s conceited CEO (who had been foisted on me) refused to fund my
proposal to launch Charter 88 – which I saw as a joint promotion exercise for
the magazine as well as a political enterprise. So I turned to Trevor and asked
for a £5,000 loan, He agreed at once. He reflects, “the proposals in the draft
charter for improving democracy and protecting civil liberties coincided
exactly with my own thinking”. We soon obtained backing from some 350
well-known signatories and the rest is history. Trevor went on to sustain
Charter 88 with major funding during the 1990s when the Blair governments were
legislating for a programme of constitutional reforms including devolution, human
rights, freedom of information.
Smith pays tribute to the contribution that John Smith,
Labour’s leader in the early 1990s, made in committing his party to reform. But
it was undoubtedly down to the impact of Charter 88 and its ability to mobilise
opinion under Barnett’s inspired leadership that obliged Blair to fulfil
Smith’s legacy, however reluctantly and incompletely. The Daily Telegraph recognised Charter 88 as the most successful
pressure group of the decade.
Smith also initiated other projects to encourage a more
democratic culture in the UK and to strengthen the promotion of constitutional
debate. One was a 13 year series of opinion polls, the State of the Nation, measuring public attitudes towards constitutional
issues over time and revealing, for example, that the public rated economic and
social rights as highly as they did traditional civil and political rights. Another
was Democratic Audit, a research body at Essex University which audited the
democratic performance of the British constitution (I was its director
alongside the political philosopher, David Beetham).
Smith describes these and other initiatives and his time as
Vice-Chancellor at Ulster amid the fiercely divided Northern Ireland society. He
recounts how a man with a deep Ulster brogue phoned when he was appointed to
warn that “we will be looking after him”. It turned out later that the threat came
not from a terrorist but a member of the staff he was to inherit. He details
the history of an audacious project which he almost pulled off, establishing a
“peaceline” campus in northern Belfast equidistant between the Catholic Falls
Road and Protestant Shankill Road as a symbol of reconciliation (or as the
officialese had it, a “confidence restoring measure”). He steered this proposal
through the self-regarding politics of Northern Ireland and Westminster to the
point where Clinton, Blair and their wives were to attend a ceremony to mark
the turning of the first sod. Unfortunately, he retired too soon and his
successor aborted it.
Smith omits one important episode from his account. As a
board member of the Statesman, he
helped save it as a political journal. The over-ambitious board lost something
like £250,000 in a crisis and had to put the magazine up for sale. In
desperation, the chair, Philip Whitehead, intended to sell to an Irish media
group who planned to turn the Statesman
into a news magazine. Smith warned me of this plan, and that I and my CEO were
about to be ambushed at a meeting with representatives of the Irish group.
So I turned up forewarned. Once at the meeting, I immediately and ostentatiously
began taking notes. “What are you doing?” Whitehead demanded. I replied: “I
think our readers deserve to know what is being done to their magazine, don’t
you?” End of.
Westminster, by Trevor Smith, £13.99 from The Caper Press.