Unusually for a profile of one of our Oral History Project interviewees, Chris Smith has not recently passed away! Yet as the first sitting MP who chose to publicly come out, his is a fascinating interview to focus on this LGBT history month. Dr Emma Peplow, our Oral History Project lead, explores his parliamentary career…
Chris Smith, Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury 1983-2005, former cabinet minister and now a crossbench peer, was certainly not the first gay MP. Nor was he the first out MP, before him Maureen Colquhoun’s sexuality had been revealed by journalists. He was, however, the first to choose to come out: a year into his first parliamentary term, at a rally in Rugby against the council’s proposal to ban gay employees. In our 2018 oral history project interview with him he explained his motivations:
He remembered the response to his decision as generally, if not entirely, positive, both within Parliament and by his constituents. Smith remembered one meeting with a constituent soon after the Rugby speech:
In a career full of firsts for an openly gay man, Smith entered Cabinet in 1997 (leading to invitations to Buckingham Palace for himself and his then partner, Dorian Jabri) and was later the first MP to reveal that he was HIV positive. Throughout he supported LGBT+ rights both inside and outside Parliament. In his interview he described the opposition to the now notorious ‘Section 28’ amendment that banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools as the “coming of age” moment for LGBT rights in the UK, and discussed various other parliamentary campaigns such as lowering the age of consent for sex between men.
Yet Smith was never a single issue politician. His career spanned being a member of the ‘loony left’ on Islington Council (in his interview he describes the infamous flying of the Red Flag over the Town Hall as “foolish”) to Culture Secretary under Tony Blair. His politics he described as ‘soft left’ – a compromise position that helped him get selected for Islington South during the Labour party’s political infighting in the 1980s, but also included battles with the breakaway Social Democrat Party. In Parliament he initially juggled the pressures of a small majority with his wide range of interests. He remembered one night leaving Parliament, mid-speech, during a standing committee dinner break to attend a tenants’ meeting in his constituency, before rushing back to Westminster with just minutes to spare before the committee resumed. He held on to his seat with a small increase in his majority in 1987 before learning he was HIV positive a year later – “a real shock” at a time when the diagnosis was often considered a death sentence. Told by a doctor that he would have to learn to live with uncertainty, he was quickly put onto a series of drugs and felt a determination to “live life to the absolute full.” Holding his position in the shadow cabinet was combined with a decision to finish ‘bagging’ all the Scottish Munros, which he did in 1989: “the determination to fit everything in come what may is a powerful driver.”
He held various positions in the Shadow Cabinet before being made Culture Secretary in 1997. His interview deals with the problems he faced at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (renamed at his insistence): a funding crisis at the Royal Opera House, the much-derided Millennium Dome project and issues over National Lottery funding. Despite being sacked in 2001 this period included securing a tax rebate to allow national museums and galleries to offer free admissions, which he considered his proudest achievement:
Smith described his “disappointment” at losing his position in the Cabinet, and his later disillusionment with the New Labour project and Parliament itself. His final parliamentary term included a bruising experience as one of the leaders of the Labour party rebellion against British entry into the Iraq War in 2003 and his waning enthusiasm for the New Labour agenda. He chose to stand down in 2005 and was quickly dubbed a ‘quangocrat’ by some of the press following his various public positions afterwards. He is now Master of his old Cambridge College, Pembroke. Although his place in LGBT history is secure, this is not the only reason to remember the varied career of this busy and successful MP.
You can find many of our oral history interviews at the British Library Sounds Archive. For more information about the project, including how to get involved, head to the oral history page at the top of the blog.
Click here for more LGBTQ+ history blogs from the History of Parliament Trust.