Andrew Massey

 

Trevor Smith, former PSA Chair and PSA Vice President and longtime member of the PSA, has published his memoirs Workhouse to Westminster. The book is available to purchase on www.caperpress.com.  Below is a short review written by PSA Vice President and member, Andrew Massey,  which will also feature in our upcoming issue of PSA News.

Workhouse to Westminster, Trevor Smith, 2018, London Caper Press.

 

Trevor Smith has spent over 60 years in politics, public service and academia. In that time, he has not only commented upon the British Constitution, he has been involved in, indeed responsible, for some of its fundamental reforms. As he retires after twenty-one years as a working Liberal Democrat peer, he has produced an autobiography that is gloriously written; vivid in its evocation of a bygone England, incisive in its political analysis of current events and in parts resplendently funny with the wryly amused observations that has characterised Smith’s swagger through life. 

In part one Smith leads us through the mingling of his English Irish and Scottish DNA and the poverty (workhouse residing) experiences of his immediate forbears, through wartime evacuation (towards the guns at Gosport) and the dull savagery of early post-war education. It is an England of cold, foggy, bronchial, political myopia, exhausted by the war and still mired in a deranged class system that trapped and damaged its citizens, especially those impelled to fight in the constant small wars of a dwindling empire. Smith emerged as a life-long pacifist and railed against these injustices. His conscience propelled him into an adult life that determined to improve the political and social system that had fostered these inequalities. Education, especially the still rare higher-education gave him the means to do this. At every turn of events he managed to ratchet-up a poor hand into a winning deal, attending a range of Colleges before pursuing a degree at the LSE and then teaching at Exeter, Hull, York and returning to the East End of London at Queen Mary College. He left Queen Mary after founding the Politics Department and serving as Chair of the Political Studies Association, to become Vice Chancellor of the University of Ulster. Whilst there he was knighted in 1996 and became a life peer the following year, using the latter position to torment recalcitrant ministers and advance a range of progressive causes, noting after he retired from academia that “as occupational therapy, attending the House of Lords beats basket-making,” and observing that in his opinion the House was the best day-care centre for the elderly in London. 

For Smith, politics was a constant. He stood for Parliament in the 1959 election and although he was unsuccessful, it got him noticed. His life as a Liberal and then Liberal Democrat was under way. He served a range of committees and joined societies and Trusts, his service in the Acton Society and Rowntree Reform Trust being the vehicle through which he funded successive Liberal causes and crusades. Never shy of fraternising with political foes as well as friends, Smith supported, funded and shaped a range of causes from Charter 88 through to the Good Friday Agreement. He befriended the Clintons, the Kennedys and other leading US opinion formers as well as hosting the Blairs and a spectrum of UK party leaders and opinion formers while in Ulster. Much of the Liberal Democrat success over the last thirty years as well as devolution, the Freedom of Information Act and other reforms were influenced by his restless interventions through Rowntree and his influential network. His vignettes of every Liberal leader since 1955 are a joy and his steely dismembering of Clegg’s legacy and self-centred leadership is merciless. 

The book also brings with it Smith’s tireless analysis of how the political tide has shifted and what he fears for the future. He introduces us to what he calls the Tentacular State. He notes the ‘history of British government since the end of WWII ….  reveals a continuing series of retreats away from democracy and parliamentary oversight of the executive.’ He charts the privatisation and PPI process and the rise of the regulatory state as related to a merging of the public and private sectors and the gradual loosening of the clear demarcation between public and private interests, the revolving door of executives and officials and former ministers crossing the boundary and moving into lucrative positions undermining the UK’s public service ethos. He leaves us with a list of questions and worries for our children’s future, before plaintively noting, ‘Almost time for me to turn out the lights.’

The book closes with a series of Smith’s aphorisms, my personal favourite being, “Of course I’m a conspiracy theorist: ‘cock-ups’, after all, are only failed conspiracies.” Indeed. A book from someone who has led more than one life in a lifetime of change and innovation and who has had a major impact on our country and our profession.