Magazine article The Spectator

The Big If

Magazine article The Spectator

The Big If

Article excerpt

One of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable series on Radio Four in recent years has been What If? counter-factual history programmes about what might have been. They have a simple format, chairman Professor Christopher Andrew, an excellent broadcaster, and two historians or experts in their fields who know how to talk fluently on the radio. The series returned this week (Thursday) with a discussion on what would have happened if John Smith hadn't died from a heart attack in May 1994 and had led Labour into the last election instead of Tony Blair.

I must confess I have often wondered that myself. I daresay Labour would still have won but not by such a big majority. The two contributors assembled on What If? both knew and liked Smith, Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on foreign affairs and Patrick Wintour, political editor of the Observer. Both thought Smith's majority would have been smaller partly because he was more Old Labour than Blair and lacked the stomach for the large-scale modernisation of the party that occurred in the three years prior to the election.

Smith told Wintour that he didn't think it worth the battle to change Clause Four ending the party's commitment to nationalisation. Blair did, making the party more electable. Smith confided to Campbell that he was satisfied with getting through one member one vote (thanks to John Prescott) and wanted to stop there. He felt bruised by the struggle to change the relationship between the party and the unions. Blair wisely realised the party hadn't changed enough and embarked on the reforms that Smith had shied away from.

Although Neil Kinnock was to many voters an unattractive figure, it was, of course, Smith who must take much of the blame for losing the 1992 election. As shadow chancellor he wanted tax increases to pay for new public spending. It seems extraordinary now but Smith would have increased income tax on anybody earning more than L23,000 a year whereas Kinnock had his doubts. Smith believed strongly in redistributive taxation in the Old Labour mould. Campbell thought it inconceivable Smith would have gone into the 1997 election accepting Tory spending plans for the next two years.

He reminded us that Gordon Brown wanted tax increases for those earning more than 50,000 a year and Smith would have agreed with that. Campbell and Wintour were interesting on Smith's democratic credentials or what seemed to be the lack of them. On devolution they both agreed there would not have been referendums in Scotland and Wales. …

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