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Sir Cyril Smith, MBE (b. 28 June 1928, Rochdale) is a British former politician. He served as Liberal (later Liberal Democrat) Member of Parliament for the constituency of Rochdale from 1972 until retiring in 1992.

Cyril Smith addressing the Liberal Party Assembly in 1987; party leader David Steel can be seen, seated to the left of the image

Contents

Personality

His larger-than-life personality (and stature — he is believed to be the heaviest British MP ever, having had a peak reported weight of 29 stone 12 pounds, about 190 kilograms) and popular television appearances made him one of the most recognisable British MPs of the 1970s. His nickname, "Big Cyril", was also the title of his autobiography. A common joke on the size of the Parliamentary Liberal Party in the early 1970s was that only one taxi would be needed to transport the entire party; after Smith's election, the party could fill two taxis. Another famously insensitive joke of the time described Sir Cyril as "a man who has had more dinners than you've had hot dinners", an insult he took with commendable good grace.

Education and political career

Smith was educated at Rochdale Grammar School for Boys and then began work at Rochdale Inland Revenue Tax Office. In the 1945 General Election, Cyril, aged just 16 gave a public speech in support of Liberal candidate Charles Harvey. Smith says he was given an ultimatum by his boss in the Tax Office to either choose the civil service or politics.

He quit his job at the tax office and obtained employment as an office boy at the Fothergill & Harvey mill in Littleborough, Greater Manchester. Although owned by the Harveys, a notable Liberal family, the director Charles Harvey knew nothing of the job application by the young man who had lost his job for his public speech in favour of Mr Harvey's Liberal party candidature.[1]

Smith joined the Liberal Party in 1945 and was a member of the National Executive Committee of the Young Liberals in 1948 and 1949. Between 1948–50, he was Liberal agent in Stockport but following the poor general election results experienced by the Liberal Party in 1950 and 1951, he was advised by the losing Liberal candidate for Stockport, Reg Hewitt, to join the Labour Party.

In 1952 Smith was elected a Labour Party councillor for the Failinge Ward of Rochdale. By 1954, he was Chairman of Rochdale Council's Establishment Committee. In 1963 Smith switched committee roles to be politically responsible for Estates. This included overseeing a considerable amount of residential and town centre development.

In 1966 he became town Mayor with his mother Eva as Mayoress. Smith's mother also retained her job as a council cleaner in the Town Hall whilst Mayoress. Smith's Mayoral duties were recorded for a BBC Man Alive documentary. Also in 1966 Smith was appointed Chairman of the Education Committee. In this role, he oversaw the introduction of comprehensive education in his district. In 1966, he was also appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen's Birthday Honours List.

In 1966 Smith resigned from the Labour whip when his party refused to vote for an increase in council house rents. As a result Smith sat with four other councillors as independents until 1970. His defection, and subsequent election as a Liberal MP, caused some surprise after his prominent role in opposing Ludovic Kennedy, the Liberal candidate in the 1958 Rochdale by-election. Controversy was sparked by older Rochdale Liberals when the existing Liberal parliamentary candidate, Garth Pratt, was deselected to make way for Smith's return to the party.

Having been Liberal candidate in Rochdale at the 1970 general election when he took the party to second place, Smith won the seat at the 1972 by-election with a large swing from Labour to the Liberals. Smith won with a majority of 5,171. He won the seat on five further occasions. In June 1975 Smith was appointed as the Liberals' Chief Whip and faced much pressure from the press in the wake of a sexual scandal involving party leader Jeremy Thorpe. Smith resigned from the Whips' Office on health grounds. Speaking to Granada Television in 2003, David Steel reflected on events in the 1970s with the conclusion:

Cyril was not an ideal Chief Whip because he did not handle a crisis well and had a tendency to say anything to a news camera.[2]

In 1978 Smith approached former Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath to discuss forming a new Centre Party. In 1981 Smith was involved in moves to create "a party with a new image" but, according to the Rochdale Observer, at the foundation of the SDP in 1981 he warned Liberal Party colleagues to move with caution. Smith was quoted as being "opposed to an alliance at any price".[3]

Unlike many Liberals, Cyril Smith voted in favour of capital punishment and was a vocal advocate of corporal punishment.[4]

Cyril Smith's prominent role in local politics made him the frequent subject of comment in the Rochdale Alternative Press (RAP) radical newspaper during the 1970s. A cartoon of him appeared on the front page of the first edition of RAP in November 1971. The May 1979 (No.78) edition of RAP featured an investigation entitled "The Strange Case of Smith The Man". The details and fall-out from the investigation was published in the national satirical magazine Private Eye and RAP (No.79) in June 1979. No libel action was ever commenced by him as a result of the RAP investigations published in 1979.

He was knighted in 1988.

Personal life

A lifelong bachelor, Smith told You magazine: "I haven't had a lot of time for courting women ... I've tended to be married to politics".[5]

After leaving Westminster and the death of his mother Eva in 1994, Smith was invited by a life-long friend, the public relations manager at Cunard, to become a guest lecturer on the QE2 cruise liner.[6]

In 1988 Smith appeared in an advertisement promoting the Access Credit Card. As a large and jolly figure of fun, Smith was seen attempting to touch his toes whilst a presenter stated: "Nice one Sir Cyril, but Access is more flexible".

In addition to appearing on a music video for 1980s pop group Bananarama, Smith also sang a duet with Don Estelle in a 1999 re-recording of the Laurel and Hardy song "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" [7]

In February 2006 Smith was taken to hospital after a fall at his Rochdale home. According to his brother, Cyril Smith had been weakened by dehydration and low potassium levels. Although retired, he is still active in his community, frequently visiting schools. His hobbies include collecting autographs.

In the summer of 2008 he came under fire for his alleged part in supporting asbestos production in Rochdale in the 1980s.[8] In November 2008 a parliamentary Early Day Motion[9] and Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror called for Smith to be stripped of his knighthood.[10]

References

  1. ^ Rochdale Observer p17, 24 June 1996
  2. ^ "Nice One Cyril" ITV Granada. Broadcast date 22 June 2003
  3. ^ Rochdale Observer 24 June 1996
  4. ^ Rochdale's Alternative Paper, No.79, June 1979
  5. ^ You magazine: 9 May 1993
  6. ^ Lancashire Life, June 1998
  7. ^ Don Estelle obituary. The Independent, 4 August 2003
  8. ^ "Asbestos: The lies that killed". New Statesman. 28 August 2008. http://www.newstatesman.com/health/2008/08/asbestos-victims-company. Retrieved 2009-05-15. 
  9. ^ 2008 EDM 2470
  10. ^ Maguire, Kevin (5 November 2008). "Sir Cyril Smith should be stripped of his knighthood over asbestos speech". Daily Mirror. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/columnists/maguire/2008/11/05/sir-cyril-smith-should-be-stripped-of-his-knighthood-over-asbestos-speech-115875-20871253/. Retrieved 2009-05-15. 

Bibliography

  • Big Cyril: Autobiography (1977) ISBN 0-491-02261-1. Smith's autobiography.
  • Reflections from Rochdale: As I Saw it and as I See it (1997) ISBN 1-85187-340-6. A later slimmer autobiographical work.
  • Cyril Smith, entry by Tim Farron in Brack et al. (eds.) Dictionary of Liberal Biography (Politico's, 1998)
  • Rochdale's Alternative Paper (RAP): 1 (November 1971), 78 (May 1979), 79 (June 1979).

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Jack McCann
Member of Parliament for Rochdale
19721992
Succeeded by
Liz Lynne
Party political offices
Preceded by
David Steel
Liberal Chief Whip
1976–77
Succeeded by
Alan Beith
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