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Sir Cyril Smith

Sir Cyril Smith, politician and former Liberal and Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Rochdale, died on 3 September 2010. He was 82.

He came from humble roots and never forgot them, as the Daily Telegraph explains:

Cyril Smith was born — in his own words, “illegitimate, deprived and poor” — at Rochdale on June 28 1928, the son of Eva Smith, an office cleaner, and an uncertain father (“I suspect I know who he was”)… [He] passed his childhood, with his two brothers, in a plain terraced house, from which the family never moved.

The Manchester Evening News highlights the young Cyril’s industry:

From the age of 11 he took many spare-time jobs – paper boy, cinema projectionist and telegram boy – to contribute to the family kitty.

He won a scholarship to Rochdale Grammar School for Boys and learned to speak his mind and express himself clearly at the local Unitarian Church.

But at 16 he insisted on leaving school so his mother would not have to work so hard – and at the same time expressed an interest in Liberal politics.

The Guardian describes his first foray into politics:

After Rochdale grammar school for boys, he went to work in a tax office. A colleague got him involved in the Liberals’ 1945 general election campaign, and a speech he made at an open-air meeting cost him his job. At the Liberal party assembly in 1948 he spoke out against conscription and, having made an impression, became Stockport’s full-time Liberal agent. His candidate, having narrowly saved his deposit at the 1950 general election, advised Smith to join the Labour party.

In 1952 he became Rochdale’s youngest councillor and Labour’s first winner in the Falinge ward, which included the house his family had abandoned. Under Labour, Independent and Liberal banners, he never lost an election in that ward, which he represented until 1975 when he resigned, saying he had not been “pulling his weight”.

After becoming Mayor of Rochdale in 1966 (and making his mother Lady Mayoress; she kept on her job as a cleaner in the Town Hall in the mornings) he fell out with the Labour group over its refusal to put up council house rents and rejoined the Liberals in 1968. The Telegraph describes his arrival on the national stage:

By then he was established as “Mr Rochdale” — the town’s best known citizen after Gracie Fields. He had been manager of its first bingo club, and had established his own business manufacturing steel springs. When a by-election occurred in 1972, he was the natural choice as Liberal candidate.

Although the town of the Liberal statesmen Richard Cobden and John Bright, Rochdale had long been a safe Labour seat. But there was the potential for an upset — Ludovic Kennedy, then a Liberal, had run Labour close in a by-election in the 1950s — and Smith set about rekindling the flame, a task in which he was aided by a national revival in the party’s fortunes.

Smith turned a Labour majority of more than 5,000 into a similar one for the Liberals…

However, this wasn’t all good news for the Parliamentary Liberal Party, as the MEN explains:

From the start of his Parliamentary career – which was to last for 20 years – he demonstrated himself as one of the most independent-minded MPs at Westminster. He was a difficult man for the whips to handle and was often as critical of his own party colleagues as of his political enemies.

Most of the characteristic Smith fire during the early months in Parliament was directed at what he labelled the “charade” of Commons procedure – a theme he returned to throughout his political career.

His role in the party during and after Jeremy Thorpe’s resignation (here described by The Guardian) was controversial:

Smith’s admiration for Thorpe collapsed when he discovered that vital information had been kept from him. His disillusion was compounded when he was virtually sacked by Thorpe in a bizarre, late-night call to his hospital ward, where he was recuperating from illness. Smith formally resigned [as Chief Whip] two weeks later. At the leadership election that followed Thorpe’s resignation in 1976, he strongly supported John Pardoe against the eventual winner, David Steel. Typically, he announced that he would not be campaigning in any constituency that voted for Steel.

The Telegraph notes that this maverick stance characterised the remaining 15 years of Smith’s parliamentary career:

From then on Smith seemed set on stirring things up. In 1977 he approached James Callaghan with a proposal to form a new “Central” party; the next year he threatened to resign if the Liberals voted for the Lib-Lab pact; indeed, his resignation threats became something of a habit.

His passions were roused in earnest over the formation of the SDP/Liberal Alliance, which he wanted to “strangle at birth”. He later accepted the arrangement, but his scepticism proved justified.

In an interview with Susan Crosland four years before the Alliance disintegrated in 1987, Smith forecast precisely what would happen: David Owen would seek to dominate it, with Steel and the Liberals pushed into the background, the contradiction of two separate parties pretending to be one becoming ever more absurd.

The Independent‘s obituarist, Edward Pearce, describes Smith’s strange mixture of personal political causes:

Many of Smith’s causes as a private member were creditable, born of his practical knowledge of small business and local government, the notion of a state-owned building society, retention of county boroughs, something urged during the great Heath/Peter Walker futility of local government reorganisation, opposition to the closed shop and calls for curbs on overcharging estate agents. He also spoke up against the physical-force element in the NUM.

But his politics were hard to place. He voted much more often with Labour yet he admired Norman Tebbit’s approach to the unions, struck up an alliance with David Alton in his zealot’s campaign to minimise abortion, stayed true to the gallows throughout all the votes and proposed a parental right to withdraw children from school sex education.

Pearce’s opening comments perhaps sum up Sir Cyril best:

Liberal Democrats win seats in the West of England, the Scottish extremities and latterly south-west London – doing so invariably from the Conservative Party. They are polite, assiduous, earnest, given to symposia, pamphlets and structured discussion. Often useful, rarely exciting, they lack panache and overflow with application. Personal differences within this quiet party are usually discreet, offering little sauce to their plain but nourishing fare of useful policy.

Cyril Smith, MP for Rochdale from 1972-92, was a one-man antithesis to all that.

(Sir Cyril Smith MBE, born 28 June 1928 in Rochdale, died 3 September 2010 in Rochdale)

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