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Wednesday, May 12, 1999 Published at 17:37 GMT 18:37 UK

UK Politics

Blair's tribute to John Smith

John Smith: "A leader of enormous courage"

Prime Minister Tony Blair has paid tribute to his predecessor John Smith on the fifth anniversary of his death.

Mr Blair said Mr Smith would have made "a great prime minister".

Tony Blair: " John Smith was a fine Labour leader"
Mr Smith died five years ago after suffering a heart attack at his London home.

Mr Blair was speaking to a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party after travelling to Labour's Millbank headquarters with Mr Smith's widow Elizabeth, who is now a peer.

Mr Blair said: "People knew they had lost a man who stood for what was best about Britain, someone who was on their side, who lived his life with a burning sense of public duty and social justice."

[ image: Tony Blair: Succeeded Mr Smith to lead Labour]
Tony Blair: Succeeded Mr Smith to lead Labour
Among the audience of 200 MPs, peers and party workers were Chancellor Gordon Brown, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, Education Secretary David Blunkett, Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling, Peter Mandelson and Chief Whip Ann Taylor.

The prime minister praised Mr Smith as "the finest debater of his generation".

He said: "For John, Parliament was the crucible of the nation where the interests of those whom he was elected to represent could be advanced with passion and pride.

"Everyone who knows the Commons would agree it's been a poorer place since his passing."

Mr Blair recalled how Mr Smith had forged tough battles to modernise the Labour Party, introducing one member, one vote.

BBC Scotland's Tim Reid reports on the tribute
Mr Smith had "stuck with the party through its most difficult times", Mr Blair said.

He provided a power of strength and upon becoming leader gave the party back its confidence and its will to win.

The anniversary of Mr Smith's day coincided with the swearing in of the new members to the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales.

Mr Blair said: "For John, devolution was what he called unfinished business....

"He never believed that to be pro-Scotland you had to be anti-Britain, just as he never believed that to be pro-Britain you had to be anti-Europe."

[ image: Baroness Smith:
Baroness Smith: "A sad day"
He added: "And in the votes they have passed, first in the referendum, and then in the elections last week, the people of Scotland and Wales showed that they too believed this to be true."

A memorial to Mr Smith is to be placed in the new Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh.

The prime minister said: "In two short years, John showed he was a fine Labour leader. Had he lived, he would have been a great prime minister.

"He had all the qualities: a reason for wanting the job other than mere ambition, judgement, steadfastness under pressure and one of the strongest characters I have ever come across.

"We miss him still. We honour his memory. And we hope he is proud at how we have honoured it by making into practical achievements his most profound political causes."

Labour could be "really proud" such a man was a member of the party and had led it, he concluded.

After the speech, Baroness Smith said: "Obviously today is a sad one for me in many ways but I am delighted that the Labour Party has chosen to commemorate John's memory in this way."

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