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Baroness Elizabeth Smith of Gilmorehill

(Elected 2002)


Baroness Elizabeth Smith of Gilmorehill took over from Lord Healy as Birkbeck’s President in 1998, a position she held until 2001. The widow of Labour Party leader, John Smith, she leads the John Smith Fellowship Trust, established in 1996. This Fellowship finances 20 young professionals from Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Moldova to come to Britain for six weeks to study the principles of democracy and good government.

Born in 1940, Baroness Smith was educated at Hutchensons’ Girls’ School, Glasgow. She taught French in her early career and received an honorary doctorate in law in 1998 from her alma mater, University of Glasgow.

Among her varied roles, Baroness Smith sat on the council of the British Heart Foundation (1995–1998) and is on the BP Advisory Board for Scotland. Baroness Smith served on the Press Complaints Commission (1996–2002), and is currently on the PCC’s Appointments Commission.

In the world of arts, Baroness Smith was a board member of the Edinburgh International Festival (1996–1999), and is currently chair of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and President of Scottish Opera.

‘I am very pleased to become a Fellow of Birkbeck,’ she says. ‘I wish the College continued success in its mission to provide high-quality teaching for mature students in an environment of research excellence.’


President, Master, Distinguished Guests, Graduates and Your Supporters.

Following her education at Hutcheson’s Girls’ Grammar School, Elizabeth Bennett, as she was then, proceeded to the University of Glasgow, where she quickly became part of a circle of people who would go on to have a lasting impact in Scottish and British politics, including Donald Dewar and her future husband, John Smith. She studied languages, and had already part of a circle who would go on to have a permanent impact and, in 1959, at the height of the Cold War, her fluency in Russian brought her to the attention of MI6, who, she has since reported, approached her with a view to recruitment; she gently but firmly declined. For some time after university, having qualified as a teacher, she worked as a teacher of French.

But she never lost her interest in the language or the culture of Russia, and the ending of the Cold War gave her many opportunities to develop links and friendships. She has been on the governing body of the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe and President of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce and active in fostering Russo-British relations on a number of different fronts.

Following the sudden and tragic death of her husband, then leader of the Labour Party, in 1994, she was made a life peer, taking the title Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill. Shortly after her arrival in the House of Lords, she was made opposition spokesman on tourism. Later that year, she agreed to join the Press Complaints Commission. It was a time when the PCC was under pressure to show its independence from the newspaper industry, and the appointment of Baroness Smith was a sign of the desire to import independence of mind and intellectual distinction. What many had sneered at as a toothless watchdog was suddenly able to bite.

The amount of business dealt with by the Press Complaints Commission increased, and Baroness Smith’s role helped to ensure that it was taken with a new seriousness, both by government and by the industry.

She has also lent her expertise and financial good sense to business, having acted as non-executive director of the Scottish Media Group plc (formerly Scottish TV), from 1995-97, and to the Scottish branch of Deutsche Morgan Grenfell as well as being a member of the BP advisory board.

Of course Baroness Smith will always be identified with the memory of her husband and the many opportunities that seem to have been lost to British politics with his passing. Where others might see this as a burden, Baroness Smith has sought to keep John Smith's memory alive in the most positive of ways. One of her most important roles since 1996 has been heading the John Smith Memorial Trust, of which the most important activity is the John Smith Fellowship Programme, administered by the British Council. The goals of the programme are to strengthen awareness and understanding of democratic processes and the workings of democratic organisations. Its fellows come to Britain for a period of six weeks, during which  they study the relations between central government and devolved assemblies, the role and regulation of civil institutions such as the media and business, in political process and the protection of human rights in a series of seminars and placements. The programme draws around 20 young civil and political professionals from countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, India, South Africa and Uganda .

Baroness Smith’s passionate interest in promoting active citizenship accounts also for her role as patron of the Children’s Parliament, based at New Parliament House in Edinburgh. This venture arose from a meeting of children from Scotland, Norway, Germany and Denmark who met for a week to design an environmentally friendly city of the future: at the heart of the city, they placed a Children’s Parliament. Its aims are to maintain and spread awareness among adults of the 54 Articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to encourage political confidence and involvement among children themselves.

She is also a patron of the Iona Community, a Christian organisation based on the small west-coast Scottish island where in 583 St Columba established a Celtic monastery. The Iona Community seeks to rebuild and strengthen the values of community and collective life, with a particular focus on the promotion of peace and the support of the young.

It has been shown that, defying the stereotype, Scottish people give more generously to charity than those in any other region of the UK, and Baroness Smith has taken a leading role in supporting charitable work, most recently in her sponsorship of the Beacon Prize, which seeks to reward individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the charitable sector.

Baroness Smith also has strong interests in the arts. But she has also been President of Scottish Opera and a member of the boards of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Covent Garden Festival. She has also, combining two areas of her interest, been patron of the Mariinsky Theatre Trust, the working name of the Anglo-Russian Opera and Ballet Trust. One of the most remarkable areas of encouragement for the arts was her support of a collaboration between the Russian Arts Foundation and the St. Andrew Foundation in Edinburgh on a project called  Konversia, which encouraged artists to think of ways of assisting the conversion of military or aggressive objects into civic or peaceful installations.

One of her most prominent roles and, I suspect, one that has given her particular satisfaction, has been as chair of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Here she has presided over a period of remarkable, not to say explosive growth. Ticket sales have rocketed in just two years from 875,000 in 2001 to nearly £1,200,000 this year, with revenue rising to over £9 million, confirming its position as the most successful arts event of its kind in the world. As chair, Baroness Smith has helped to ensure that the Fringe has grown without ever losing its vitality and bite; as well as helping it continue to pull of the remarkable trick whereby, by allowing itself to be taken over for five weeks of every year by Tibetan throat-singers, Swedish contortionists and Swahili performances of Hamlet, the city of Edinburgh manages to emerge and remain more distinctively itself, and more distinctively Scottish than ever. The internationalism of the Fringe seems to speak to Baroness Smith's own outward-looking nature.

Baroness Smith agreed in 1998 to become Birkbeck's President, succeeding Denis Healy, who had held the office since 1993. It was a demanding time to take up this job, since Birkbeck was about to launch its 175th anniversary celebrations. She took no time at all to become familiar and easy with the role. She represented us, both to the outside world and, on occasions such as these, to ourselves, with grace, good sense and understanding. One of the most important of her roles, of course, was to preside over this very graduation ceremony. Her speeches from this lectern and others were always finely-judged, perfectly in tune with the occasion, while looking beyond it in inspirational ways. 

Baroness Elizabeth Smith has been a sane, shrewd and influential voice in politics, arts and business. For this, as well as for her generous and distinguished service to us as our President, we honour her, and welcome her today as fellow of Birkbeck College.