After the 1979 General Election the Liberal Parliamentary Party consisted of just eleven MPs – although Cyril Smith’s girth meant that it was often said that at 28 stone he made up in weight what was lacking in numbers. But at least Cyril’s size rendered obsolete all those hackneyed jokes about how the entire parliamentary party could be squeezed into the back of a taxi or hold its meetings in a telephone box.
By the time we came to know one another Cyril’s size had become a trademark and the rhyming nickname, “Squirrel” was a term of affectionate endearment rather than abuse. But, as a 15-year-old weighing 14 stone, Cyril once revealed the social ostracism and insecurity of childhood when he remarked “I was the obvious butt for schoolboy jokes.” His obesity began with an accident at Spotland Primary School, which led to a kidney infection, nephritis and glandular problems. There were fears for his life – and, not for the first time, there were predictions that Cyril would have a short life.
Throughout my early years in Parliament there were repeated dire predictions about Cyril’s mortal span but by 2010 just four of those eleven MPs were still alive – and Sir Cyril’s passing reduces that tally to three. For me, his passing marks the end of a close friendship and also the end of a political era.
And life had not begun well for Cyril Smith. He had an inauspicious start in life. Cyril never knew his father – and he spoke movingly about the stigma which attached to him and his beloved mother, Eva. He contrasted today’s more tolerant attitudes with those which prevailed in the year of his birth.
He described how after his birth on June 28th 1928, the next edition of The Rochdale Observer carried no reference to entry into the world at Birch Hill Hospital while four other births, where illegitimacy was not an issue, were recorded. The same edition of the town’s newspaper also carried a story about how the Rochdale Corporation had passed a motion banning mixed bathing as it might offend public decency. It was a very different world. Cyril’s bruising start in life made him a life long and passionate defender of the right to life of the unborn and the importance of removing pressures on frightened women who would otherwise be pushed into the hands of an abortionist.
Cyril once said: “I didn’t grow up as someone’s son, I grew up as me. Cyril smith, individual. It was one of the first lessons of life, perhaps one of the most painful, but I have no doubt that learning it has had an important an beneficial effect in moulding me.” Cyril said that his mother taught him to “work, work, work.”
Before moving to Emma Street – the terraced house where he lived for 60 years – Cyril’s first home was in Falinge Road. He shared one room with his grandmother, mother, – both of whom brought him up – his bother, Norman, and sister, Eunice.
Baths were taken in a tin bath – a childhood experience I also recall – after water was heated up in a copper built into the fireplace. Mother worked every day as a cleaner – eventually cleaning at W.H.Crosland’s stunning Victorian Gothic town hall, which still captures the pride of a town built on the proceeds of King Cotton, boasting a Mayor, Aldermen, proud local councillors and a Corporation. Rochdale was called “the town with a clean face and a dirty neck.” The beautiful town hall was its clean face and the town’s slums the dirty neck.
The Smiths came from the poor end of town but although they were certainly underprivileged they were never desperately unhappy: “the folk of the North West had long since made up their minds. If you don’t laugh, you cry. We laughed a lot, and everyone else in the neighbourhood did too.” Perhaps the need to laugh explains the great friendships he later made with some of the country’s best known comedians – Les Dawson, Ronnie Corbett, Bernard Manning, Jim Bowen and Jimmy Cricket.
This war time spirit was crucial during the long anxious days of conflict followed by the lean years of scarcity, austerity and rationing.
Cyril recalled that on cold winter nights, in the absence of adequate fuel, they would sometimes burn some sticks of furniture to keep their home moderately warm.
His childhood experiences and his origins explain why, like his political hero, the Rochdale MP and reformer, John Bright, he too would argue for change, challenging the status quo.
“John Bright,” he said, “did as much for the ordinary man as any politician in history.”
Speaking up in his no nonsense way, for the ordinary man and woman, would also mark out Cyril Smith. And like those other Rochdale heroes, the Rochdale Pioneers who founded the co-operative movement, Cyril Smith worked to give ordinary people a chance in life.
Cyril began speaking up as a seventeen year when he joined the Debating Society at Rochdale High School, while Dr HFW Payne presided as headmaster.
In one of his first debating jousts Cyril vigorously opposed a Debating Society motion, based on some words in a hymn, which announced that “Step by step since time began we see the steady gain of man”.
Thus far that had not been his experience, although, paradoxically it would prove to be the story of his own life.
Step by step he pulled himself and his family out of poverty and he made his mark in the town of his birth – becoming, in 1952, the town’s youngest ever Councillor, representing Falinge Ward; being elected Chairman of the Education Committee; and then, in 1966, Mayor of Rochdale – with mother becoming Lady Mayoress. My favourite photograph of Cyril is with his mother, both in their mayoral robes, and mother is pictured with scrubbing brush in hand.
Outside of politics Cyril’s success in business, creating Smith Springs – a profit-sharing company of spring makers – secured him financially.
But it is Cyril Smith the politician – or “Cyril Smith – the man” – as his election posters plainly put it – that we will remember.
In 1952, having left the Liberals – some of whom he described as “political dilettantes” – he joined the Labour Party and Cyril began as he meant to go on.
He won Falinge Ward from the Conservatives after canvassing every single house personally. Every time he met a voter who said they would vote for him he produced an official Nomination Paper and got them to sign it. They then received a personal letter, which he topped and tailed and addressed, and sent it to them the day after he had met them. Brilliant political organiser that he was Cyril left no stone unturned.
Having won his seat he then set to work on behalf of his constituents. One of his early successes was the demolition of some notorious Rochdale slums, the Paradise Flats. He described how “families shared food with rats, had to climb endless stairs for running water, and had walls covered in hideous yellow fungi.”
His greatest passion was education – and in addition to his chairmanship of the town’s Education Committee he served as a governor of over twenty schools, becoming a staunch defender and friend of the voluntary aided schools run by the local churches. His local government achievements led to the Queen awarding him the MBE and it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would become the town’s Mayor.
As a boy of nine Cyril had seen Rochdale’s regally robed Mayor, replete with chain and symbols of office, and had decided that was the job he wanted: “All my conscious life, had been working towards my ambition to become Mayor. I had taken it as a foregone conclusion, the natural zenith of my progress.” On his election as Mayor in May 1966 The Rochdale Observer headline proclaimed: “Boyhood prophecy has become a reality for town’s new mayor.”
That other Rochdale legend, Gracie Fields had once remarked “I was taught to respect God, the King and the Mayor of Rochdale, in that order.” Years later she would tell Cyril that “the King was lucky to scrape into second place.”
As the town’s first citizen Cyril Smith worked around the clock, taking on an unprecedented schedule of engagements, visiting every school, talking to children in every class.
But, as every politician knows, politics is full of hubris and passing fancies. Cyril told the story of how, on the morning of the mayor’s elections, two symbolic gilt lamp standards would be installed outside the mayor’s home. A chauffeur driven car would appear and the keys to open every room in the town hall would be given to the new incumbent. But, on the day that mayor’s time in office expired, the keys were taken back, the car no longer arrived, and the gilt lamp standards would disappear as magically as they had first arrived. The natural zenith of Cyril’s political progress was about to become his nadir – and he would momentarily believe that his political career was over.
Cyril had fallen foul of the Labour Party’s move to the left and he had increasingly recoiled against the party’s policy of nationalisation of British industry and what he called its polarising tendency to entrench class warfare.
Cyril was bitterly attacked for having become an employer with his own small factory – and was told that he could no longer be regarded as a representative of the working man. He was voted out of the chairmanship of the Trades and Labour Council and then, during a full meeting of the Rochdale Council, his colleagues reversed an agreement to support a proposed rent increase. An incensed and blazing Cyril Smith announced to a stunned council meeting that from that moment on “I no longer consider myself a member of the Labour Party”.
In due course he would be voted out of every single political office he held, including his school governorships. For the next two years he sat as an Independent, with four other councillors who had joined him, before returning, in 1968, to the Liberal Party, the party of his youth.
Two years later, in the 1970 General Election, he would contest Rochdale in the Liberal interest and two years after that, following the death of Jack McCann, Cyril was persuaded to enter the lists in the ensuing parliamentary by-election.
I first encountered the big man during that 1972 by-election. Having just been elected as a City Councillor in the inner city of Liverpool I had rounded up a team of helpers and we drove over to Rochdale’s Liberal Rooms in Drake Street. Cyril was outside fitting on to the top of his car the largest set of loudspeakers which I had ever seen. You could hear him from half a mile away. I spent the rest of that day canvassing high rise blocks of flats near the centre of town.
Among the voters there were no neutrals and there was no indifference towards Cyril. Once the Party scented an electoral upset volunteers poured in from everywhere. The press began to speculate that “the cart horse will win the race” and John Spiller, the country’s best election agent, was drafted in from the West Country– and as well as organising a victorious campaign John found time to marry Angela, enlisting Cyril as best man.
By polling day a Labour majority of 5,171 in the 1970 General Election became a by-election majority of 5,093. Triumphantly, Cyril brought a train load of supporters to see him take his seat.
In the years which followed Cyril took on a demanding schedule of public meetings and political engagements – campaigning in a flurry of successful by-elections from Sutton and Cheam to Ely, from Ripon to Berwick-upon-Tweed. As he became known for common sense and plain speaking the meetings grew in size – and his tub-thumping oratory often stirred emotions. Quite a contrast with today’s sound-bites, puerile spin, and anodyne political statements.
Cyril was one of the country’s great old time orators – he also knew how to deploy wit as a political weapon.
I recall one election meeting where a group of racists covered the big man with flour. Quick as a flash he retaliated: “Pity thou didn’t bring eggs, we could have had pancakes.” Another heckler quoted Nye Bevan’s old saw that “we know what happens to people who stand in the middle of a road, they get run over.” Cyril’s response was “Yes, and we know what run down either side of the road – the gutters.”
In the 1974 General Election, Cyril made headlines when he arrived, after a bumpy ride in a private light aircraft at RAF Manston in Kent. As he had landed on military property Cyril was told to take off his election rosette: “You can tell them to get stuffed!” was Cyril’s unambiguous reply. Picked up by a TV camera microphone Cyril’s unscripted remark ran on every national news bulletin. It must have been worth a million votes – certainly worth half a dozen party political broadcasts.
Cyril’s irreverence for conventions which he didn’t care for extended to the House of Commons. He despised red tape and bureaucrats. He hated pomposity and self importance. He couldn’t understand restrictions on things like the number of constituents you could take for a cup of tea in the House of Commons tea room. He objected to the disproportionate voting system and the old boy arrangements of Westminster’s gentleman’s club. Having described the House of Commons as “the longest running farce in the West End” he later said he had been wrong, “it wasn’t a farce, it was a tragedy.”
On one occasion he persuaded reluctant colleagues to stage a protest by occupying the Opposition Front Bench but they refused to join him in wearing tea-shirts he had made demanding “Fair Votes Now”.
In 1975 David Steel resigned as Chief Whip and although Jeremy Thorpe, then leader, knew that Cyril was the obvious candidate to succeed Steel the post was left vacant for months. Reluctantly Thorpe asked Cyril to take on the job.
It was not an easy relationship and within months Cyril had to take the brunt of the torrent of publicity which flowed from revelations and allegations about Jeremy Thorpe. These stemmed from allegations about a relationship with Norman Scott, a male model, to allegations about hush money, blackmail, and the killing of Scott’s dog, Rinka. Scott had a history of mental illness. Ultimately it would all lead to charges alleging a conspiracy to murder.
Cyril publicly complained that he had been lied to and kept in the dark: Thorpe responded, publicly censured Cyril, calling him an ass.
Under siege by the media and drawn into a scandal which was not of his making, Cyril complained: “I am being made to almost carry the can for something that’s nothing to do with me.”
Exhausted and demoralised Cyril was admitted to Birch Hill – the hospital where he had been born. Seeing his health deteriorate his family urged him to resign as Chief Whip, and in 1976 he did just that. Cyril commented: “I was the innocent party who had paid the price but I regained my freedom.”
On May 9th, 1976, Jeremy Thorpe’s own resignation followed Cyril’s and over the next three years, until the trial in 1979, when Thorpe was acquitted, the Scott affair dominated Liberal politics.
In the midst of all this I was elected in the Liverpool Edge Hill by-election. Cyril Smith gave generously of his time to my campaign and four weeks later, in the General Election which followed, I found myself campaigning with Cyril in Rochdale and, rather bizarrely, in Jeremy Thorpe’s absence, in Barnstaple, in his North Devon constituency.
Those three years saw the election of David Steel as Thorpe’s successor; they ushered in the Lib-Lab Pact, which both Cyril and I opposed; and they brought the three day week and a dark period of industrial confrontation and a growth in radical left wing politics.
In Rochdale, Cyril dug himself in, holding his seat in 1979, 1983, and 1987. When the Social Democratic Party emerged in 1981 he said it should “be strangled at birth” but he mellowed – as he so often did – and threw his weight behind Alliance candidates. On becoming Chief Whip in 1985 I was able to coax him to return to Liberal Party Conferences – and he was given a rapturous reception as he highlighted the plight of pensioners and correctly pointed to the collapse of community life, observing that “the scourge of old age is loneliness.”
In 1988 Her Majesty the Queen knighted him and by 1992, declining health and mobility led to Cyril’s retirement from Parliament – although not from politics: that would have been an impossibility; it was in his blood.
Throughout his life Cyril was always in the eye of the storm – and often on the receiving end of vituperative attacks from the Left – not least from The Rochdale Alternative Press.
Sometimes his willingness to fight for a local company or for a Lancashire-based industry – the asbestos industry, for instance – blinded him to the negative and even harmful side of their activities, and led to public controversy. But Cyril was an honest man and when he made mistakes, as we all do, he was man enough to admit it.
Cyril was a “localist” long before the term became fashionable. He never forgot where he came from – and he always counselled: have a care for your family, your friends and your roots. He stated clearly “I was a product of my background: a born radical.”
He had no time for the metropolitan classes of politically correct politicians and once said: “I have seen too many politicians rise to prominence by the efforts of good party workers, only to turn a haughty back when the desired success has been achieved” – not a charge which could ever be levelled at Cyril.
For a long time Cyril, Richard Wainwright and I were the only Liberal MPs in the north of England – and we shared an office at Westminster.
Cyril and I became firm friends and had a lot in common. We both came from working class families; were both grammar school boys; both became Young Liberals; both ran the north west Federation of Young Liberals; both loved local government and served as young councillors; both were elected in by-elections – Cyril in Rochdale, October 1972; and I was elected in Liverpool in March 1979. We both held the same views on issues like social justice, personal liberty, profit sharing, political reform, racism, abortion and euthanasia. We were both opponents of the Lib-Lab Pact and the bitter sectarianism of both the Far Left and the Far Right.
Even on the one major issue where we disagreed, capital punishment, Cyril eventually changed his mind.
We were also both Chief Whips of the Liberal Party – both passionate that whips should not seek to subvert the consciences of individual MPs – and we both resigned from political parties – in Cyril’s case the Labour Party – on a matter of principle, and sat as independents. We both had a hatred of political correctness; and both had a religious faith – Cyril was a deeply committed Unitarian – and faith animated the political beliefs of us both.
Throughout the 1979 Liverpool Edge Hill by-election Cyril Smith campaigned for me – always accompanied by his faithful brother, Norman and by his agent, Rodney Stott. On arriving at Westminster, it was Cyril who was the first to make me welcome in the Commons. Taking me to the Commons Chamber he gave me the sage advice “just remember David, over there are the Opposition, and all around you are the enemy.”
After swearing the oath and taking my seat alongside Cyril, Denis Skinner – the Beast of Bolsover – amusingly dubbed us “little and large”.
Over the years since he retired from the House I remained in touch with Cyril and as his health declined further was able to visit him at Emma Street, the Royal Infirmary and at Littleborough’s Hursthead Nursing Home.
I asked him what he made of the election of 2010. He was deeply disappointed that Rochdale’s sitting Lib Dem MP, Paul Rowen, had been defeated. Had he regretted not being able to get out and campaign? I asked. “I can still write” he sharply reminded me – and I could sense a letter to The Rochdale Observer in the making. Cyril once said “If I have any single talent, it is that of being able to communicate with ordinary people.” That, along with many other talents, he retained to the end.
So much of Cyril Smith’s life revolved around Rochdale Town Hall. It was where Cyril celebrated so many of his political triumphs and also where he suffered his occasional defeats. It was where friends would gather to celebrate Cyril’s eightieth birthday, cheered up by the humour of Rochdale’s great comic, and Cyril’s good friend, Jimmy Cricket ( whose son, Dale, is now a Rochdale Lib Dem Councillor while another, Frankie, Cyril’s God son, is training to be a Catholic priest). The Town Hall is also where ten years ago he and I launched a good citizenship award scheme for local schools, with awards provided by the Childer charity which Cyril founded: awards which particularly celebrate the achievements of children overcoming disability and adversity.
But Rochdale Town Hall was also the venue for a surprise broadcast of Michael Aspel’s programme “This Is Your Life”. That night, as Cyril saw his life and times flash before him, there was an understanding that “step by step” since his life began we had indeed seen the steady gain of a singular man.