After two unsuccessful contests for parliamentary seats, John Smith was elected Labour MP for North Lanarkshire in 1970. He gained junior ministerial experience before becoming a Minister of State at the Privy Council Office, where he took responsibility for piloting the devolution proposals for Scotland and Wales through the House of Commons. His assured handling of this led to his appointment as Secretary of State for Trade until Labour lost office in 1979.

After Labour’s 1987 General Election defeat, he was appointed Shadow Chancellor by Labour Leader Neil Kinnock and after the defeat at the 1992 General Election, John Smith was elected in his place.

As leader, he abolished the trade union block vote at Labour party conferences, and committed a future Labour government to establishing a Scottish Parliament, duly delivered by his successors, most notably his close friend Donald Dewar, after his death.

John Smith, 11 May 1994

"A chance to serve, that is all we ask."

Under his leadership, Labour gained a significant lead in the polls over the Conservatives, with a big victory in the local government elections in May 1994 and a substantial lead in the opinion polls. However, on May 12, he suffered a massive heart attack from which he could not recover. Had he survived, there is little doubt he would have been the next Prime Minister.