Saturday, September 04, 2010

The significance of Cyril Smith

Numerous tributes have been paid to Cyril Smith since his death was announced yesterday.

In a comment on Liberal Democrat Voice, Chris Rennard reminds us of his importance to the Liberal Party in the early 1970s:
Cyril Smith was one of only four Liberal candidates who increased their share of the vote substantially in the 1970 General Election. All four of those candidates (the others were Ronnie Fearn, Cyril Carr and Wallace Lawler) were popular local Councillors who were effective community campaigners. Their relative successes helped to give me and others some of our inspiration for how an electorally successful Liberal Party might be created.

When the Rochdale by-election occurred in September 1972, the Liberal Party had only six MPs (three in Scotland, one in Wales, one in Cornwall and one in Devon). When Cyril Smith won it, he became the only Liberal MP in England apart from John Pardoe in N Cornwall and Jeremy Thorpe in N Devon.

Cyril’s victory in the by-election began the the Liberal Party revival of the early 70s. His agent John Spiller was one of my many mentors in the party. John made sure that Cyril wrote a personal note to everyone that he knew in the constituency inviting them to his adoption meeting and inviting them to be an official signatory on his nomination paper – more than 5,000 people signed them.

The September Rochdale by-election win helped provide momentum and belief that Graham Tope could win Sutton and Cheam in the December by-election (masterminded by another of my mentors – Liverpool’s Trevor Jones and organised again by John Spiller. The community based campaigning approach from these campaigns (by now being spread by pioneers in places such as Pendle and LB Richmond) led to widespread Liberal gains in the 1973 local elections (inc control of Liverpool), two more parliamentary by-election gains that Summer and 29% in the national opinion polls that Summer.

Cyril’s contribution to the survival and recovery of the party in this very difficult period following the debacle of the 1970 General Election was therefore immense.
I heard Cyril Smith address a public meeting in Sutton Coldfield in 1982 and he was a terrific speaker. His style of oratory, which no doubt came from Nonconformist preaching, now seems a world away from today's culture of soundbites and glottal stops.

Because of his vast size, people expected Smith to be an uncomplicatedly jolly person, but he was always a more complex and difficult person than that. In a tribute I quoted yesterday, Sandy Walkington suggested:
Cyril’s tragedy was that his weight made him a figure of fun when he was in fact a shrewd and insightful politician who never got the recognition he deserved.
That feeling imbues the obituary by Michael Meadowcroft that appeared in this morning's Guardian. Anyone who was around in the party in those days will know that there was never much love lost between these two, and Meadowcroft is honest about Cyril Smith's shortcomings as a colleague and his sometimes unattractive views.

But his summing up is fair and reflects the ultimate sadness of Smith's career:
His success in transcending the disadvantages of his birth without acquiring any airs and graces, and without in any way abandoning his roots, seemed nevertheless to leave him with a curious inferiority complex.

Perhaps his most revealing comment was made in 1985: "I don't believe that I have ever been acceptable to the Liberal party establishment. I was handy to trot out to attack the Labour vote because I was working class."
Actually, such a complex is common among those born into extreme poverty and often with good reason. I suspect the largely public-school Liberal establishment of the day did rather look down on Smith.

Nor should we modern secularists forget the important role that religion once played in our national life. Because I remember from reading his autobiography that one of the reasons that Smith felt he was despised is that he was a Unitarian - the most free-thinking of the Nonconformist churches. In his days as a teacher, some found it positively shocking

In Leicester, by contrast, the Unitarians were wholly respectable and provided many of the city's Liberal mayors in the 19th century.


Manfarang said...

Unitarianism in NW England has a working class following.
In the 19th century, the Unitarian Church was the Liberal Party at prayer.

Dave B said...

I was surprised when reading Mind the Gap to read that people used to view churches on class lines.

Jonathan Calder said...

Interesting. The leadership, at least, of the Unitarians in Leicester was middle class.

dreamingspire said...

I'm sad that I never met Cyril, but a friend of mine hailed from Rochdale and had known Cyril in his local political activity - my mate moved away from there in 1968, which was when we met, and was able to help me with background info when Cyril reached the Westminster stage. So I followed and greatly admired his parliamentary career. When I put Cyril's story against the contemporary West Country material from that part of my family, it illustrates what a broad church the Liberal party was and the LDs are. RIP, Cyril.