John Smith and The Death of Social Democracy

by George_East on May 13, 2014

John SmithYesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the tragic death of John Smith, the last Labour leader to be unequivocally committed to a society based on social democratic principles rather that those of marketisation and neo-liberalism.

Like the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v Gore in 2000, it is one of those great contingent moments of recent history.  Had John Smith not had died from a massive heart attack on 12 May 1994, he would have undoubtedly gone on to lead the Labour Party to a major victory in 1997.   Tony Blair’s fresh faced appeal may have added a couple of points to Labour’s total, but John Major  and a Conservative Party in the midst of a civil war was doomed to go down to a landslide defeat whoever led the opposition.

Had John Smith become Prime Minister in 1997, we would have had a recognisably Labour government – one that would have been in the tradition of Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan.   Smith would have led a Labour Party that was not ashamed of its own history and traditions and would have been a leader who did not feel that he needed to define himself against his own party.

Most of the considerable achievements of the early Blair years were legacies of John Smith’s leadership, from the introduction of the minimum wage to Scottish devolution.  Those of you able to remember back to the heady first couple of years of the Blair administration will also recall that it was the uber-Blairites, in particular Peter Mandelson, who did what they could to water down and undermine these commitments – the age differentiated minimum wage for example.

Once these commitments were out of the way the Blair administration on the domestic front entered into its marketisation of public services phase – with private prisons, private sector involvement in the health service and the academy programme, all of which later allowed Cameron and the Coalition to claim they were simply completing the policies that Tony Blair started.

The better parts of Labour’s domestic agenda from the second Blair term onwards, the huge increases in public expenditure were, of course, largely Gordon Brown’s policy agenda.  Brown was highly likely to have been chancellor under Smith too and there is no reason to believe that this would have been any different.

Instead as a result of John Smith’s death, the myth developed both amongst the chattering classes generally and in the Labour Party in particular that it was only because the Party had repudiated its social democratic past that it had been able to regain power.  It is the same myth that seems to constrain Ed Miliband so much in being bold in his proposed agenda – leaving us with unsatisfactory scraps of decent policy amongst commitments to maintain austerity economics and the benefit cap.  The neo-liberal cringe originates with John Smith’s death and sadly shows no signs of coming to an end.

John Smith’s Labour Party was the last one I could feel really enthusiastic about (rather than nose peg least worstism).  He is one of the great lost Prime Ministers and his death had a significance far greater than the lost of an individual politician, however significant.   It is somewhat ironic that the twentieth anniversary of his death was the same day which saw two polls putting the Tories into the lead for the first time in two years and pessimism descend across the British centre-left.

If John Smith’s death augured the end of social democracy (at least in the United Kingdom as a whole – arguably it continues in Scotland and Wales), a victory for the Tories in 2015 or a continuation of the current coalition with its commitment to uber-Thatcherism, will herald the final end of what survives of the social democratic settlement that served the country so well for the first three decades after the Second World War.

RIP John Smith. You are sorely missed.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Fionauk May 13, 2014 at 6:47 pm

Sadly, all so true. The nation has long been the poorer because of his passing. 20 years, can’t believe it’s been that long.


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