OPINION: Sir Cyril: Thanks for the Memories?
Reporter: John Hardcastle
Date online: 20 September 2010
Great men should not have great faults
Francois Duc de la Rochefoucauld
I was reading about the reaction of the late Sir Cyril Smith’s family to the rehashed ‘Private Eye’ piece about the old, and for some unresolved, allegations regarding his relationship with some of the residents of Cambridge House back in the 1960s.
The Smith family understandably want to do their best to ensure that the public memory of Sir Cyril is untarnished by allegations that remain unproven.
In truth, I don’t know exactly what the allegations consist of, much less if they are true or untrue. That is not what this article is about. It is about memory or, to be more precise, how the dead are remembered. Much has been written about Cambridge House but perhaps much more remains to be told?
Sir Cyril was of course a great self-publicist throughout much of his life. By and large, this worked well for Rochdale. The names of the town and its MP were inextricably linked in the public imagination for many years. Did Rochdale gain from this? Who knows but it did put us on the map. The question is which one?
What will Sir Cyril be remembered for? In some ways, it seems that like Daniel Lambert, his legacy will for some always be measured in his physical girth rather than in his personal and political accomplishments. For others, he will be remembered as a shrewd politician who cared passionately about the town and its people.
Sir Cyril to some extent chose the manner in which he should be remembered. His 1972 election campaign urged us to vote for ‘Smith – the Man’. And so it is as a man, the WHOLE man that he will be remembered. For his accomplishments and for his failings. For his tragedies as well as for his triumphs.
No matter how he tried to explain about the need to protect jobs, his relationship with the management of Turner Newall was ill-advised at best and shabby at worst. To ask the Chairman of the company which was involved in the deaths of large numbers of his constituents to write his parliamentary speech showed the very poorest judgement and undermined his reputation as a champion of decency and fair play. There were calls from within the House of Commons for him to be stripped of his knighthood.
His involvement in the Stefan Kiszko case in which he spent much of the mid and late 1970s saying that this man should have been hung lost him the trust and admiration of many former ‘fans’. Kiszko was later proved to have been completely innocent and although Smith did apologise to the family, his earlier comments left a bad taste in the mouths of many.
Every Rochdalian had an opinion about Sir Cyril Smith. Love him or loath him, you did have an opinion.
Long after he left Parliament, he continued to be regarded as an elder statesman and as some sort of ‘fount of all knowledge’. No aspiring Liberal Democrat politician could afford not to make frequent pilgrimages to Emma Street to receive tutelage and guidance from the master.
Should Sir Cyril be remembered as a great man? Not in my opinion. He had many qualities and skills but he had far too many flaws and imperfections as well. Was he a good man? Well he certainly believed that he was and it cannot be denied that he had a large following right up until his death and arguably beyond.
Neither should he be remembered as a particularly bad man unless you have been personally bruised or damaged by your own encounters with him.
Perhaps I will allow my long-dead mother to have the last word. “Sir Cyril,” She said, “Were a good man for ‘t’town.”.
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