British Labor Party Leader John Smith Dies at 55
Opposition leader John Smith died from a heart attack Thursday, creating a crisis for the Labor Party just as it was looking strong enough to regain control of the government after 15 years on the sidelines.
Smith’s death at age 55 came as Labor was hoping to exploit weaknesses in John Major’s Conservative Party, which has governed Britain since the election of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979.
Parliament was stunned. Speaker of the House Betty Boothroyd faced a crowded, silent House of Commons to announce Smith’s death in a shaking voice. All business was canceled so lawmakers could hold an afternoon tribute.
Smith, who had recovered from a near-fatal heart attack in 1988, was at his London home Thursday when he was stricken again. He was taken to nearby St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The Labor Party was left wondering “how we move forward in the light of this tragedy,” spokesman Dave Hill said.
No Labor leader stood out as a clear favorite to succeed Smith, probably ensuring a fight over the party’s leadership.
A robust and eloquent Scot with a witty and combative parliamentary style, Smith had led the party to its highest standing against the Conservatives in recent years.
In a moving tribute to Smith in the Commons on Thursday afternoon, Major said his opponent could “shape and move the will of the House” with his formidable debating style.
Smith took over the party leadership from Neil Kinnock in 1992 after Labor’s fourth consecutive general election loss to the Conservatives.
Unlike many Labor politicians with strong socialist views, Smith was from the right wing of his party. He was seen as a force that could draw his party further toward the center and make it more palatable to British voters.
Smith grew up in western Scotland, the son of a village school headmaster. He joined the Labor Party at age 14, trained as a lawyer at Glasgow University and was elected to Parliament in 1970.
He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and three daughters.