Sir Cyril Smith – A personal note from Rochdale Euro-MP Chris

Date published: 05 September 2010

Rochdale Euro MP Chris Davies has written a tribute to Sir Cyril Smith who passed away on Friday (3 September 2010).
Sir Cyril Smith, ‘Big Cyril’, died on Friday.  He first hit the headlines in 1972 when he won a famous Rochdale by-election that helped bring the Liberal Party back to life.  As an MP he served the town of his birth for two decades, having already been a councillor for 25 years, changing from Liberal to Labour and then back to Liberal again.  But he didn't have much time for the House of Commons: it was "the longest running farce on Whitehall."  He preferred to spend his time in Rochdale and around the North West.

I last saw him a fortnight ago in a nursing home on the edge of the town.  He had been taken to hospital late last year and remained bedbound, a shadow of his former self, often declaring that he wanted it over.  Throughout he was visited daily, and sometimes twice daily, by his brother Norman.  I talked about political events on my last visit, and he was more lucid than he had been for a while, but I thought at the time that there was a certain finality about our parting.

My first acquaintance with Cyril was in Liverpool in 1977, when he visited for a spot of campaigning.  A couple of years later, when the Edge Hill by-election took place in that city, I remember he called at the tiny terraced house owned by my wife, Carol, which was being used as a committee room.  At the time he was truly ENORMOUS (he had huge presence), and I always thought the fact that he was able to make use of our tiny bathroom put value on the house!

But it was in the 1980s, when I became parliamentary candidate for the Littleborough and Saddleworth seat (next to Rochdale) that our paths started to cross frequently.  He could be the most loyal of friends yet a truly formidable foe.  I had experience of the latter when I crossed him by expressing support for a candidate who challenged his brother for leadership of the Liberal group on the council (sorry Norman).  His displeasure lasted some years, but when the sun finally came out the warmth was a great pleasure.

Thereafter we often disagreed about particular issues (Cyril was pro-hanging) he would always rally to my defence when it was needed.  Having him on my side was often a cause of comfort. 

Although he was never a European enthusiast he campaigned for me in 1999 when I first stood for the European Parliament.  I spent happy days travelling across the North West with him, his brother Norman, and the former Rochdale agent Rodney Stables.  The car we used had been strengthened to bear their formidable collective weight and I was like the filling in a sandwich.  I remember a pleasant afternoon in Lytham St Annes, where I had been born and where Cyril liked to spend his holidays.

He wore his heart on his sleeve.  Proud of his achievements, Cyril was passionate about two things, Rochdale and politics.  Everyone knew him, absolutely everyone.  He was forthright, and blunt, and people trusted him as an honest politician.  But no-one should forget his total commitment to the political process with all its flaws.  He could be a champion of great and noble causes, but he could also get down and dish it out to opponents.

He was a great letter writer, and I think I have kept everything he ever sent to me.  All mail was responded to by the end of each day.  Communication was often more rapid than it would have been by e-mail.  Liberal leaders over the years lived in trepidation of the next missive from Emma Street, site of the small terraced house in the heart of Rochdale that was his home to the end, but his words rarely did anything but inspire interest and support for our party.

A great many people will have their own fond memories and recollections of Cyril. I would like to share just two of my own.

The first is a phrase he used that I have now acquired for myself and frequently repeat censoriously to my staff: “The difference between an amateur and a professional is ATTENTION TO DETAIL!”

The second stems from the period after he retired as an MP.  He was invited as a guest speaker onto the QE2 and shared some of his repertoire at charity events.  It's my favourite story of his.

Cyril said:“As you may know, I am a Unitarian.  A while ago we had to arrange for our chapel to be pulled down to make way for a new road.  The compensation wasn’t enough to pay for a new building so I set about fundraising.  Over the years I have given money to many causes so I wrote to those associated with them to ask for something in return.

“One morning I received a letter from a catholic priest.  “Dear Cyril,” it read.  “Your letter has caused me much soul-searching.  Would it be appropriate for a catholic priest to donate money towards the building of a new Unitarian chapel?  Eventually I consulted my bishop and he has advised me not to do so.  Please accept my apologies.
“P.S.  Please find enclosed a donation of £10 towards the cost of demolishing the old chapel.”

Goodbye Cyril.  We shall miss you.


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