Tribute to Lord McCluskey former Chair of the John Smith Trust


It is with great sadness that the John Smith Trust recognises the death of its former Chair, Lord McCluskey. 

A message from Baroness Smith 

Lord McCluskey, John to those who loved him, was my friend and my husband’s friend for 50 years. In the early days – when John and I came to Edinburgh knowing no-one – McCluskey was already a QC and he shepherded us through those first years of my husband’s career in the law and in Edinburgh life generally. As my husband’s legal and political career progressed John McCluskey was a mentor and true friend, providing support and guidance professionally and personally. We enjoyed many evenings and family holidays with him and much much laughter. 

Many years later he was to play the same role of support and guidance for the John Smith Fellows, and indeed the Trust itself. It is a simple truth to say that the John Smith Trust would not exist without the leadership and dedication of John McCluskey. He nurtured and cherished our special idea to use John Smith’s ideals to speak to young people in developing democracies today and offer help in their complex endeavours. He loved every minute of his time with John Smith Fellows and cared deeply about them and their efforts. The reach of his work with the Trust is literally worldwide: there are many John Smith Fellows mourning his loss, although just as many remembering his insightful and funny words of wisdom. 

A Tribute to Lord McCluskey – by former Director of the John Smith Trust, Emma MacLennan 

In 1986, The Lord McCluskey became the first and only serving judge to deliver the prestigious Reith Lecture for the BBC – a series of six, half-hour lectures by leading public figures on important issues of the day, aired on prime time radio. When asked by the BBC to specify his choice of subject, he told them “Law, Justice and Democracy.” The commissioning editor replied with a smile, “Is that all?” 

In his years as Chair of the John Smith Trust, John McCluskey would often tell this anecdote to amused Fellows from different countries. Described by the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates as a “Giant of Scots Law,” and by The Scotsman as a “judge with a heart and a hard incisive mind,” Lord McCluskey was one of the few people in public life who could do justice to the issues of law, justice and democracy in a thought-provoking, meaningful and thoroughly entertaining way. The announcement of his death on Thursday, July 20th, was a great blow for all friends of the John Smith Trust. 

John was a close personal friend of John Smith. He served as Chair of the Trust commemorating John Smith from early on in the Trust’s establishment until 2005, when he stepped aside in favour of Lord (George) Robertson but continued a very active role as trustee. He served as Solicitor General for Scotland from 1974 to 1979; as a Senator of the College of Justice from 1984 to 2004 and a judge in Scotland’s supreme courts until retiring from the Bench in 2000; became a Life Peer in 1976 as Baron McCluskey – where he played a leading role in the bill for Scottish devolution – was Editor of Butterworth’s Scottish Criminal Law and Practice series; and was a frequent and highly-regarded participant in parliamentary and public debates on many issues including legal reform, human rights, devolution, drugs policy, mental health, ageing, football and the treatment of offenders. 

But looking back at all these achievements, John considered his relationship with the John Smith Fellowship Programme to have been one of his most important contributions to public life. 

John had a very special relationship with all John Smith Fellows he met. His views on democracy and justice were delivered in a way that revealed his own priorities – a search for truth rather than popularity, a belief in integrity and professionalism, a love of debate and exchanging ideas, and a great respect for young people and their potential. He loved nothing more than to be surrounded by John Smith Fellows discussing the challenges they face, and we face, in building a better future for our countries. John Smith Fellows in return considered Lord McCluskey as both a mentor and a true friend. 

No tribute to John could be complete without mentioning his tremendous sense of humour. Few people are able to deliver jokes that inspire everyone in an audience – men and women of different ages and from many different countries and cultures – to laugh out loud. John’s famous ‘crofter’ joke was asked for frequently by visiting Fellows and others who had heard it many times before, but just needed his perfect delivery and expression to set them laughing again. Most of John’s jokes had an underlying message: in the case of the crofter on his death bed, that you need to take care in formulating important questions. With his humour and love of humanity, John was able to reach people in a way that none will forget. 

In March this year John was recognised with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Scottish Legal Awards. In his acceptance speech he said he felt his most significant legal achievement was to help protect the independence of the judiciary from a provision of the Scotland Bill that would have allowed Parliament to remove judges. His commitment to the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law made an impression too on many of the young lawyers and political leaders he met among the John Smith Fellows. The best memorial to Lord McCluskey and to John Smith is the work of the John Smith Fellows, and their continuing commitment to the law, justice and democracy. 

John’s beloved wife Ruth, also known and loved by many Fellows, passed away in 2014. They are survived by their three children, David, Mark and Catherine.

© The John Smith Trust 2020 - Registered Charity 1174898 - Company registered in England number 7284602