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John Smith, 20 years on

John Rentoul

John Smith Labour John Smith, 20 years onI won’t resume the debate about how Labour would have fared if John Smith, who died 20 years ago today, had lived. John McTernan pays tribute here, and Ian Bell also had a fine eulogy last week.

But McTernan’s article did pose one question that stands for the whole. The question is whether Smith would have held a referendum in Scotland on the proposal to restore a Scottish parliament.* Tony Blair upset most of the Labour establishment in Scotland when he insisted on the referendum before the 1997 election. Previously the view of most of Labour’s leading Scots, including Smith, was that a Scottish parliament was the “settled will” of the Scottish people and a referendum was not needed.

Blair was right to take the opposite view. Had he not done so, the devolution Bill would probably have been obstructed and sabotaged in the House of Lords.

Smith might have been persuaded of this, and he might have asked his friend Derry Irvine to manage the legislation as Blair did. But if he had not done so, and failed to deliver devolution, his legacy would not be so indulgently regarded now.

*A Scottish parliament, what is more, that would have the power to vary income tax by 3p in the pound – a power that the parliament has never used, and yet the Scottish National Party says that Scotland needs more power to run its own affairs.

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  • Pacificweather

    Dear Mr. Biographer, did Blair want devolution or did he hope the referendum would crush it?

  • JohnRentoul

    I think he saw it as a demand to be managed.

  • newfriendofed

    Unfortunately this might also apply to how he saw Iraq: as a demand (by Bush) that all he could do was try to manage.

  • greggf

    I’m not sure if the “demand” was a fact, pressure sure but pressure groups are part of life.
    Sinn Fein in 1918 demonstrated demand, which Enoch Powell reiterated by saying something to the effect that if the Scots want independence then the SNP have to send a majority of Scottish MPs to Westminster.
    Blair’s vision of “demand” may have been more like a cosmetic sales venture which was fashionable at the time.

  • porkfright

    Well, perhaps he could have told Bush to get stuffed.

  • newfriendofed

    That’s my point. I wish he had.


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