Memento Mori: Matthew Parris, The House of Commons and the 1994 Death of John Smith
John Smith MP was one of those tragic political should-have-beens. But while Leader of the Opposition riding on Labour’s 23% point lead over the Tories in 1994 and widely assumed to be Prime Minister in waiting, he died 18 years ago tomorrow from a pair of massive heart attacks. He was only 55. For those concerned with public life, it was one of those remember-what-you-were-doing-moments. But the reason for picking up on it here is that I was blown away at the time, and recalled in conversation last week, the piece written by the great Matthew Parris, at the time The Times’ Parliamentary Sketch-writer and oft-quoted by Q.
He captures in evocative and pitch-perfect prose the incomprehension of the moment. As the news clip below shows, this was meant to be the time for Prime Minister’s Question time, when the Leader of the Opposition faced the PM (in those pre-Blair days, this happened twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays). Smith had been declared dead that very morning, despite having been on good form and with colleagues the night before. So the brutality of human mortality were all too real. It is not often that the realities of human nature invade public life so closely or with such immediacy.
The Chamber was packed. For just a couple of minutes, as Madam Speaker suspended the sitting for Members to collect their thoughts, a sort of emotional confusion, reigned beneath the watching Press Gallery.
There was no buzz of conversation. Margaret Beckett was very close to tears. People tried to pat her on the back, or put an arm awkwardly on her shoulder. John Major looked simply staggered. Most of the Cabinet were there. Douglas Hurd and Kenneth Clark at the Prime Minister’s side. Between Sir Patrick Mayhew and Michael Portillo sat Nicholas Scott – suddenly yesterday’s news.
The Labour Front Bench was too full to accommodate the Shadow Cabinet. Gordon Brown stood by the Speaker’s Chair. Every face was knotted with tension. Hands twisted and untwisted. David Blunkett’s guide dog, stretched indolently on the carpet, occupied a tiny plot of unconcern in a field of tension.
Nobody really knew what to do. It was a sudden moment suspended in a sudden silence, between an event and the consequences of an event. These would flow soon enough. The speeches would flow sooner.
But just for an instant, as I faced the unexpected intervention of mortality, the whole House of Commons added up to a strange, awful, uncomprehending pause.
Matthew Parris’ Commons Sketch on the death of John Smith (The Times, Fri 13th May, 1994)
Of course, the consequences of this were far-reaching. Tony Blair swept to power first as Labour Leader and the as a 3-term PM. Who knows? We would probably never have gone into Iraq. Be that as it may, it is a much-needed reminder, so desperately denied, that one of the key responsibilities in life is to prepare for our mortality. For as CS Lewis puts it so persuasively in the Screwtape Letters, the senior devil puts it to Wormwood that one of the spiritual disadvantages of war is that it keeps mortality at the forefront:
How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition! And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever. (From Letter 5, Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis)
But it’s not polite dinner-party conversation or appropriate pub chat.
Sorry to be so morbid – but there’s simply no point living in denial; and it’s just that I don’t believe death is the end…