My Clerkenwell Life – Baron Smith of Finsbury

Chris Smith, the former MP for Islington South and Finsbury, became a life peer in 2005 and was chairman of the Environment Agency until 2014. He talks to Andre Paine about life in EC1, his political legacy and Jeremy Corbyn.

Was it important to reflect the local area in your title?
It was, because I’d been the Member of Parliament for Islington South and Finsbury for 22 years. Finsbury has a fine and radical history, and I decided that was what I wanted to take as my title.

What first drew you to the Islington area?
I started living on Barnsbury Road because a friend had a spare room, and I rented it when I started working in London after university. The remarkable thing was I then discovered that my grandmother had been born in Barnsbury Road towards the end of the 19th century.

What do you like about Clerkenwell?
The sense of urban buzz mixed with the feeling that it’s still a bit of a village. There aren’t many parts of London that have that combination – it makes it very vibrant. The radical history is well known: it’s where the Chartists gathered to have their marches demanding reform in the 19th century.

The Labour party was founded in 1900 in a meeting hall on Farringdon Road. And it’s where one of the first ever health centres was built – the Finsbury Health centre, which is where my GP is now.

How long have you lived here?
It was about four years ago that I moved here. I’d separated from my partner, and I found a really rather wonderful flat in Dallington Street. I very much wanted still to have a foothold in my old constituency. As Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, I have to spend quite a bit of time in Cambridge, but with a really good train service from King’s Cross, Clerkenwell is absolutely the right sort of place to be in London.

Did you dine with cabinet colleagues in EC1?
I prefer to have a lovely meal and meet with friends rather than do political deals. My current favourite restaurant hereabouts is Granger & Co – really good and quite interesting food.

Is there a special place for you locally?
I think my favourite spot in Clerkenwell is St James’s Church, and the little maze of streets around there. The churchyard itself is a green oasis, and the streets are a real reminder of what the area must have been like 150 years ago. It’s just a magical place.

Did you socialise with Tony Blair when he was a constituent?
He was, famously, living in Richmond Crescent when he was elected as Prime Minister, so he did at least have a Chris Smith poster in his window in the ’97 general election. I saw him a bit socially, and I worked closely with him in government. I subsequently fell out with him rather severely over the Iraq War.

How did you get on with parliamentary neighbour Jeremy Corbyn?
I had very friendly relations with Jeremy, we worked very closely together for all the 22 years that I was an MP. We made common cause on a large number of local issues. I disagreed with him on some things, of course, but we got on extremely well. I have to say, with considerable reluctance, I don’t think that he’s the right person to lead the Labour Party into a general election. But he’s certainly got a lot to offer.

Were you glad leadership contender Angela Eagle’s sexuality was largely ignored?
The fact that her sexuality wasn’t an issue was a really good thing. I remember when I became – I think I’m right in saying – the first ever openly gay cabinet minister anywhere in the world when I was appointed to the cabinet in 1997. The fact that there wasn’t really any fuss about it showed me at that time that we’d made a lot of progress.

Were you involved in the EU referendum?
I did what I could to persuade people to vote Remain. I was, I have to say, devastated by the result. I think it’s a disaster for the British economy, for our society and for our future relationships with the world. I think that [view] was widely shared – Islington as a whole voted over 70 per cent to Remain. That didn’t surprise me at all.

Are you close to your parliamentary successor, Emily Thornberry?
I am, and we talk with each other from time to time, and she seeks advice and I try and offer it.

As Culture Secretary, you introduced free museum entry – a proud moment? 
I’m enormously proud of that. It has transformed the visiting experience for so many people who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to go. When the Science Museum went free, I was standing in the foyer and a young man carrying his daughter on his shoulders made a beeline for me. He turned to her, and said: “I want you to say thank you to this man, it’s because of him we’re able to be here today”. That was the moment when I thought perhaps I’ve achieved something in a lifetime of politics after all.