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The opportunity to serve our country, that is all we ask

He was not an obvious figure to command great excitement. He was middle-aged, bespectacled, respectable-looking, clever, occasionally quite witty but rarely very exciting. But in 1994, millions had pinned their hopes on John Smith to become the next Prime Minister. We can never know for sure, but there were many signs that he was well on his way to succeeding in this task.

This was largely what made his sudden death following a heart attack in 1994 so devastating for many people.

Smith, who became Labour leader in 1992, could be fierce in attacking Prime Minister John Major in House of Commons: “He is the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government,” he once claimed.

But he could be funny too, on another occasion jokingly blaming the troubled government for two news stories they clearly had nothing to do with: “The man with the non-Midas touch is in charge,” he said. “It is no wonder that we live in a country where the Grand National does not start and hotels fall into the sea.”

In the end, no one knows what might have happened had John Smith lived. But he was undoubtedly remembered with genuine affection. Indeed, it is telling that one of the most moving tributes given after his death aged just 55, came from his old rival John Major himself.