British Labor leader, 55, dies after heart attack

May 13, 1994|By New York Times News Service

LONDON -- John Smith, whose political acumen and personable style made him the favorite to lead the opposition Labor Party into control of the British government for the first time in two decades, died unexpectedly yesterday after suffering a heart attack at home. He was 55.

The news stunned Britain. Queen Elizabeth II offered private condolences to Mr. Smith's wife and his three daughters, many of his Labor Party colleagues wept openly in Parliament, and his political rivals offered glowing messages of tribute to an opponent best remembered for his good humor and compassion.

At Downing Street, Prime Minister John Major, the Conservative Party leader who often came out second best in verbal duels with the acerbic Mr. Smith in the House of Commons, described his rival as "an outstanding parliamentarian," adding: "In public, we frequently clashed in the heat of debate. In private, we met often and amicably."

Coming only a week after his party had rolled to huge gains across Britain in town and county elections, Mr. Smith's death raised the specter of old divisions in Labor's ranks, just as Labor appeared to have the governing Conservative Party on the ropes.

Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at Oxford's Brasenose College, said that Mr. Smith would not be easy to replace, because he lent the fractious Labor Party an "image of authority and respectability" it had not had in earlier years.

Surveys of voter preferences in recent months have given Labor a commanding lead over Mr. Major's faltering Conservative government, and many of Mr. Smith's political allies spoke of him yesterday as the prime minister they never had.

"It is a desperate, desperate injustice he never got the chance," said Neil Kinnock, whom Mr. Smith succeeded as party leader after Labor was beaten by Mr. Major and the Conservatives in 1992.

Mr. Smith collapsed with chest pains yesterday morning as he was preparing to set out on a day of campaigning in suburban Essex on behalf of a Labor candidate in balloting next month to elect the European Parliament.

Not only did Labor earn the highest vote in the local elections last week, but polls suggested that that it would pick up seats in the European Parliament next month, when Britons return to the polls to choose representatives from 87 districts.

Margaret Beckett, the 51-year-old deputy leader of the party, now takes over the leadership. Although many privately regard her as merely a caretaker until a new leader can be selected, Labor officials insisted that they would not consider a formal replacement for Mr. Smith until after the European balloting in June.

Among the leading contenders to succeed Mr. Smith are Tony Blair, the 41-year-old who is now Labor's spokesman on domestic policy; Gordon Brown, 42, the opposition spokesman on the Treasury; and John Prescott, 55, the transportation spokesman. Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown come from the party's more mainstream wing; Mr. Prescott's roots are among the more militant unions, whose influence in party affairs has faded.

In many ways, Mr. Smith was an unprepossessing figure. But along with his droll wit and sharp mind that made him a formidable opponent in debate, Mr. Smiths' greatest strength was his ability as a conciliator. As Labor leader, he succeeded in bridging the divisions between the party's more militant wing of trade unionists and those pragmatists -- like Mr. Smith himself -- who preached a more mainstream approach.

As party leader, he was widely credited by colleagues with maintaining unity and giving Labor a calm and authoritative face as Mr. Major's political woes mounted over the last year and the Conservative government's standing in the polls eroded.

Apparently believing that his best strategy was to let the Conservatives continue to self-destruct, Mr. Smith declined to lay out any details of the policies that Labor would pursue should it come to power.

He particularly avoided discussing specifics on spending and taxes, issues on which voters have traditionally distrusted Labor.

"Labor is now a party appealing to every part of Britain and every part of society," Mr. Smith said last week after the party gained more seats and the Conservatives suffered worse-than-expected losses in local government elections.

Many political analysts, though, questioned whether the thoughtful, ever-smiling Mr. Smith was aggressive enough in his campaign and debating style to finish off the Conservatives in the next election, which must be held by May 1997.

There also were doubts within his party about Mr. Smith's physical stamina. He had suffered a heart attack in 1988. He took three months off to recuperate and lost more than 40 pounds. Over the last two years he maintained, without any apparent problems, the grueling pace of a party leader.

Mr. Smith was born on Sept. 13, 1938, in the Scottish village of Ardrishaig, the son of Archibald and Sarah Smith. His father, a school headmaster, was a staunch Socialist who encouraged his son's interest in politics. As a student at Glasgow University, Mr. Smith ran twice for Parliament unsuccessfully.

Mr. Smith received a law degree from Glasgow University in 1967 and won the parliamentary seat for Lanarkshire North three years later.

He is survived by his wife of 26 years, the former Elizabeth Bennett, and by three daughters, Sarah, Catherine and Jane.

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