Nigel Smith, devoted family man, industrialist, sailor and hill walker, referendum wonk, devolutionist and electoral reformer was the most influential political campaigner you’ve never heard of.
He died suddenly at home in Scotland two weeks ago aged 78, unburdened by establishment honours and with little public attention. The list of those who campaigned alongside Nigel or who sought him out for advice, or who found themselves fighting against him – a situation that usually ended in defeat – includes Alex Salmond, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Ming Campbell, Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, David Owen and George Osborne. Each of them will remember the quality of the man and know what has been lost.
Nigel spent his twenties and early thirties in England, working in a series of management roles in the construction and manufacturing industries. Living in London in the late sixties and early seventies he campaigned against apartheid, serving on the Camden race relations committee.
He returned to Scotland in 1976 to buy David Auld Valves, a Glasgow-based manufacturing business. Turning it around and raising a family of four children with his wife Jodie kept him out of politics for the next decade but in 1986 he was invited onto the board of the BBC’s National Broadcasting Council for Scotland. Officially, his role was to represent the views of Scottish business, but Nigel chose to take a broader view, concerned that the national broadcaster was too London-centric, and arguing for more of its budget and operation to be devolved across the UK. That British power was too centralised, and if Westminster and Whitehall could be only persuaded to trust people everywhere with more responsibility then the UK should be a fairer, happier and more productive country, was a cherished Nigel truth which he never let go.
The BBC’s internal politics and its complicated relationship with government helped Nigel understand how the British establishment operated and reached decisions. And crucially, how it might be persuaded. A Scottish voice for reform that was unwelcome and easily ignored, Nigel learned to gather the evidence he needed to build a compelling case, and then to make it with tenacious persistence.
Nigel was always able to see the wood from the trees because his perspective was uncluttered by the sorts of calculations (ego, fear, uncertainty) that often befuddle the rest of us. There was never anything in it for him; he simply did what he thought was best. He was unable to disguise his affection for people and had a gift for recruiting others to his cause, one-at-a-time over a glass of wine or a walk in his beloved Campsie hills. Nigel was not clubbable in a St James’s sense, but he was brilliant at building solidarity. A twinkle in Nigel’s eyes would communicate absolute confidence that his interlocutor was much too intelligent and generous spirited not to come around to his point of view. “Do you not see?” he’d ask, genuinely perplexed. And when at last they did they would earn a clap on the shoulder, a firm handshake and then Nigel was away into the night; he had a business to run, a family at home, a boat to ready for the spring tide.
Nigel was never a member of a political party. It wasn’t tribalism or ideology that drew him to politics but a determination to make the two countries he loved – Scotland and the United Kingdom – fairer, more settled societies which dealt a better hand to those on the margins of society. By the early 1990s Nigel was a “British decentralist and a Scottish devolutionist unionist”, and his cause was a Scottish Parliament. Labour’s return to power under Tony Blair made a devolution referendum in inevitable. But Nigel feared disunity among the pro-referendum parties (Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP) might once again fracture the Yes campaign. So, he used his own money to commission polling that demonstrated that if Yes was united it would beat the Tories comfortably, and in 1996 took the results to the three-party leaders in turn: Donald Dewar, Ming Campbell and Alex Salmond. These men were old rivals, but Nigel persuaded them to bury their differences and form a three-way coalition, which they asked Nigel to chair. In September 1997 Yes won the referendum with 74% of the vote.
In the spring of 1998 Nigel showed the same polling to me. I had travelled up his office in Glasgow to discuss Prime Minister Blair’s plans to hold and win a referendum on the euro. I was building a UK-wide network for Business for Sterling, a non-party campaign set up to oppose Blair; we wanted to mobilise businessmen and women to make the case for keeping the pound in their hometowns and cities but Nigel, who believed that joining the euro would lock the UK economy into the wrong exchange rate with damaging long term consequences for firms and jobs, argued that to win we must also broaden our coalition. I listened very carefully; Nigel spoke like an expert doctor diagnosing a complex condition – connecting the polling numbers with the political cycle, the personality of Blair, the priorities of Labour, the nature of referendums. He talked about politics with a suppleness and affinity that I had not come across before.
“Do you not see?” he asked me as he dropped me at Glasgow’s Central Station and I climbed onto the train home crystal clear about one thing: that I had to persuade Rodney Leach, the banker who chaired Business for Sterling, that we needed Nigel on our board. By the time we launched the cross-party ‘Europe Yes, Euro No’ campaign in September 2000, Nigel (to Rodney’s enormous credit) was Chairman, Dom Cummings was Campaign Director and our brilliant team included Janet Bush, George Eustice, James Frayne, Matthew McGregor, Neil O’Brien and Paul Stephenson. Nigel insisted that all of the coalition, including Caroline Lucas of the Green Party and Ian Davidson’s Labour Against the Euro, had a seat around the table. Conservative supporting business leaders might be paying the bills but that didn’t make it their campaign. The sceptics respected Nigel too much to disobey him and we quickly started earning dividends from a broad-based coalition that the media reckoned Blair would struggle to beat in a referendum. Job done. Another Nigel win.
During the noughties, making the case for a more decentralised EU became an increasingly important issue for Nigel. Gisela Stuart’s experiences as the UK Parliament’s representative on Giscard d’Estaing’s European Constitution Praesidium, a classic exercise in grand fromage subterfuge, deeply disturbed him, and Nigel supported calls for Tony Blair to hold a referendum before ratifying the Constitution. The European Commission’s conveyor belt appetite for greater power offended the devolutionist in Nigel, and the willingness of the UK’s elite to swallow the argument that there could only be one way of ‘doing’ European union irked his reforming instincts. He joined the board of Open Europe, a pro-reform think tank that Rodney, Neil and I founded in 2005. And he began a correspondence with David Cameron and George Osborne, whom he had first met while chairing the No campaign and whose quality and ambition he had immediately recognised; his main concern was that they should understand Scotland. By 2014 he had become a trusted adviser to Prime Minister Cameron, and his Downing Street policy lead Andrew Dunlop. He was frustrated with how London played the Independence referendum (too remote, too ‘us and them’, no British vision), but nonetheless called the result precisely. The next day I had lunch with Nigel at his home outside Glasgow and he was cock-a-hoop.
By now Nigel had sold David Auld Valves in a management buy-out, leaving the business in a far better state than when he bought it. Officially he was retired and spending more time on Quartermaster, the 40ft yacht he kept moored on the Clyde estuary and sailed around the western isles in the summer months. He travelled to Africa, Asia and around Britain to see his children and grandchildren. But politics hadn’t done with him yet, nor he politics. After Cameron’s 2013 promise to hold a referendum on EU membership if he won the next election, Open Europe board meetings became pre-occupied by the prospect of a showdown with the EU, and how it might be used to trigger a Europe-wide debate about reform.
A pro-European, Nigel hoped that the EU28 could be persuaded to consider a more flexible structure and return more powers to member state parliaments, something he believed was necessary to safeguard Europe’s liberal democracies, and the long-term future of the EU. If he was here today Nigel would gently remind those bemoaning the UK’s exit that the Westminster parliament is the most moderate in Europe, and that the UK enjoys Europe’s highest levels of support for immigration.
Soon after the 2015 General Election, with the EU referendum now a certainty, Number 10 poached Mats Persson, Open Europe’s Director, to join its negotiating team. Rodney Leach was drawn into the role of consigliere to the Prime Minister. Nigel and the rest of Open Europe’s board members, including Simon Wolfson, David Frost and George Trefgarne looked on, hoping that the EU would accept the case for reform. When the negotiations ended in February 2016 after an all-night summit in Brussels Cameron emerged looking harried, resigned to a scrappy referendum which he had promised Donald Tusk he knew how to win. Open Europe’s board members began to split between Leave and Remain. Only Rodney stayed on the fence, out of a sense of loyalty to the Prime Minister.
Deeply troubled by the choice that now confronted him, Nigel went quiet. Then, one morning I received an email from him: “I’m for Leave”. Having reached the same conclusion, I had taken a sabbatical from my business to work for Vote Leave. Nigel’s endorsement was a big boost. During the campaign he made several visits to our Westminster HQ, poring over our polling and giving advice to Gisela and Dom. Once again, he called the result. One more Nigel win.
Political careers are supposed to end in failure, but Nigel’s didn’t. Courageous and independent minded to the end, he continued to gather his evidence and argue his corner. He thought constantly about how to improve the processes and institutions of British democratic politics; he relished argument and always respected those who disagreed with him, if they too had formed a decent argument. By the time of the 2019 General Election he had spent over three years trying to bring Leavers and Remainers together; he was delighted by the result, which he felt restored stability to Westminster politics and at last made reconciliation possible. He was also pleased that the result placed those who had gone back on their 2016 promise to respect the referendum result on the wrong side of history. When I called him on election night, he pointed out that this was the third time the British people had voted for Brexit; “do you think they’ll listen this time?”
His attention returned to the future of the United Kingdom, and the prospect of a new constitutional settlement. Despite the SNP’s gains in Westminster, his instinct was that they were running out of steam. On its twentieth anniversary he marked the Scottish Parliament 6 out of 10, publicly expressing disappointment that the Scottish parties hadn’t used devolution as an opportunity to introduce a more collaborative form of politics. But he was sure that Scotland and the UK were better off for having Holyrood, and didn’t I see that further reform was always possible? Already he was engaged in a debate about constitutional reform, arguing against the idea of a British federation as too clumsy and bound to create English dominance. Instead he believed the government should be encouraging a panoply of institutions and places to practice Britishness in ways that were meaningful and beneficial to voters. Cities like Manchester and Glasgow shared problems and opportunities – the government should be fostering collaborations between them. Why not create a north British caucus bringing together Scotland and northern England? If post-Brexit Britain is to have a new UK Fisheries Board set it up in Aberdeen but make it answerable to London not Edinburgh. For Nigel, the Union was best expressed by show, not tell.
When in spring 2017 Andrew Hood and I created the Commission for National Renewal, an unofficial and premature initiative to develop a cross-party and Leave-Remain consensus on post-Brexit opportunities, Nigel was one of the first people we invited to join. Almost three years later, Dominic Cummings was planning to offer Nigel a formal advisory role in Boris Johnson’s Government. That his influence won’t be felt by the Government is a great tragedy. Those of us who shared Nigel’s view that a Leave vote was necessary to protect our parliamentary democracy, and to make possible a fairer, less divided society must now work towards this outcome without him. Nigel stood taller than the rest of us and we will need to stand on one another’s shoulders to see as far and as well as he did. Nigel would like that.
This article was first published as a Weekend Essay on http://www.reaction.life