‘John Smith would’ve backed a People’s Vote’: Watson’s memorial lecture

Tom Watson will deliver a memorial lecture today to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of John Smith, who led the party from 1992 to 1994.

In an event hosted by the Fabian Society, Labour’s deputy leader is expected to make a speech that recalls his memories of Smith and celebrates the Labour tradition championed by the former leader.

Watson, who strongly supports the idea of holding another EU referendum and recently set up the ‘Future Britain Group’ for Labour parliamentarians dissatisfied with the current policy direction of the party, will particularly highlight Smith’s pro-European internationalism.

Smith regarded Euroscepticism, “whether of the right-wing independent trading nation variety or the left-wing ‘socialism in one country’ variety”, as “wrong-headed”, Watson will say. “If John was alive today… I have no doubt that he would have taken a stand very similar to that of his deputy, Margaret Beckett, and backed a People’s Vote as a way out of this destructive mess.”

As he did at the second Future Britain Group meeting last week, the deputy leader plans to present Labour as the only party that can defeat the far-right. In a message especially aimed at Remainers, he will urge Labour voters not to stay home in the European elections.

The Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, is widely expected to come first in the elections on May 23rd. “Farage and his far-right colleague, Stephen Yaxley Lennon, are trying to speak for Britain and define our country,” Watson will warn.

“John Smith would have seen this plastic patriotism for what it was and exposed them for what they are – base nationalists of the nastiest kind; the ultimate cynics, playing on fears and lies.”

The deputy leader will add: “There are only two forces that can win this election – that nasty nationalism of the Farage Brexit Party, or the tolerant, compassionate outward-looking patriotism of the Labour Party. I can only plead with Labour supporters – don’t stay at home, don’t put that cross elsewhere, don’t let them win.”

Looking back on his personal memories of Smith, Watson will say: “I was a young man when John Smith died. I knew him, as well as a junior staffer at the party headquarters could know the leader. But ask anyone who worked with him, many of whom are here this evening, and we will tell you the relationship was more than one of dutiful subservience.

“We loved him. We had faith in him. We believed in him. Those qualities that the British people so warmed to, and grieved when he died, when strangers wept in the streets, and brought flowers to the steps of 150 Walworth Road, were even more apparent up close. His warmth, his intellect, his humour, his determination and above all his values.

“I was there on the night of the European Gala Dinner serving up the drinks, and myself and Iain McNicol walked him to the waiting car at the end of the evening. The last line of his speech that night was ringing in our ears – ‘please give us the opportunity to serve our country. That is all we ask.’ And that, as we know, was the last speech he made.”

More from LabourList