Climbing back from the abyss

17th October 1997, 1:00am
David Henderson


Climbing back from the abyss
David Henderson profiles the Tories'new spokeswoman

By a quirk of political coincidence, there are two Elizabeth Smiths from Morningside and it proved a baffling matter during the general election for some of the constituents of Edinburgh South. Lady Smith, wife of the former Labour leader, is a renowned local figure and graced literature from Nigel Griffiths, now a trade minister. Her namesake was the Tory candidate. "The older generation kept asking how I could possibly change sides," Ms Smith recalls.

Tory Elizabeth is aged 37 and a rising figure in the remnants of the Scottish Tories. But there are common bonds. Lady Smith has long established contacts with Russia and Elizabeth the younger has a captivating interest in the demise of communism, taking time out five years ago from George Watson's College to write a text on it at a Cambridge college. The topic now features in her Sixth Year Studies classes at Watson's, where she is assistant principal economics and modern studies. She studied at the 1,200-pupil Edinburgh independent and has taught there for 13 years.

Ms Smith's classroom reveals much about the Tories' new education and training spokeswoman. The walls are plastered with political paraphernalia, school sports teams beam out from their mounts and photographs of mountain ranges rise above the blackboard. This is no ordinary modern studies teacher: she has scaled a few of these snow-covered peaks.

Two cricket bats rest against the foot of the blackboard, looking distinctly out of season and out of place. This is no genteel Ms Morningside but an activist with a zest for travel, sport, the outdoors, teaching and politics. You get a feeling we might hear more of her in years to come.

Two landslides and an earthquake have hit her lately. She was cuffed by 11,000 votes on May 1 and two years ago on a trekking trip to Pakistan came mighty close to disappearing down a Himalayan mountainside. A landslide, earthquake and a dead Sherpa, who was carried for five days in a wrapped blanket, are just some of the tales she is prepared to recount.

She claims not to be a mountaineer, merely an enthusiastic climber and hillwalker who has conquered Alpine ridges and the odd Munro or three.

And the cricket bats? "They belong to the girls' cricket team." Ms Smith is something of a rarity, a woman in a man's game. She turns out for Watsonians' thirds as an all-rounder with a sound defence. Should she ever make it to Westminster, she will be inured to the choicest vernacular.

She has launched the girls' cricket team and is a regular school sports enthusiast, taking the hockey first XI for 10 years, plus tennis and squash. "It is expected that you take part in at least one extracurricular activity and as a teacher you get so much more insight into the kids. One of Watson's strengths is that it does offer so many extracurricular activities," she says.

But is it not a handicap for the Conservatives to field a spokeswoman from the stronghold of private education? Does that not send the wrong signals from an apparently chastened party? Ms Smith, of course, thinks not. She accepts she was selected because there is not an abundance of active Tories in education and because the party is "genuinely looking for people at the chalkface". Being a woman and a younger, fresher face, helped too. Ms Smith stands for a new beginning and - taking the William Hague line - admits the party has to be more open and in touch.

And, no, it is not a disadvantage coming from Watson's. "I am not of the school that says the independent sector is better than the state sector. There are good independent schools and bad, good state sector schools and bad, and we have to learn from each other," she insists.

Striking a further consensual tone, Ms Smith believes there are common issues in education, across sectors and parties. Boosting the image of the profession is one priority. "Teachers are fed up with curriculum change, bits of paper, assessment and appraisal. They just want to get on with the job in the classroom," she states.

Curiously, it is a position not a million miles from that of Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, who has pledged to remove obstacles to teaching. Ms Smith is aware Labour has stolen some of the better Tory lines but is not unduly alarmed. "We are not looking for a new philosophy, we are looking to make things work," she says.

Student fees are another policy on which she does not appear to be radically out of step, although she is adamant the "mechanics" have still to be worked out. Higher Still and raising the quality of teaching are other policy developments where details have to be challenged in the interests of good government, Ms Smith maintains. She advises Mr Wilson to take his time to implement any changes and come and talk to her and fellow Tories. This is most definitely Hagueish.

Ms Smith remains a unionist and perhaps retains an eye on a seat at Westminster, but is realistic enough to recognise the battle was lost over the Scottish parliament. Now, the plan is to make it work. She will "probably" put her name forward as a prospective MSP and must stand a fair chance of representing the bright, blue face of new Toryism on Calton Hill, or wherever the parliament is sited, either through direct election or the party lists.

Politics is her "meat and drink" and the Watson's connections drew her into active involvement. She taught Malcolm Rifkind's daughter and worked locally for the former Foreign Secretary (another Watsonian) for 10 years. The May election was her first as a candidate, an experience she rather enjoyed, despite the outcome in what was once a safe Tory seat.

She is well connected and has been spied wining and dining with the infamous Tuesday Club, the right-wing Edinburgh-based ginger group that likes to plot the downfall of the Tory hierarchy and Labour. But Ms Smith says that she keeps her distance. "I am not a propagandist or ideologist and I do not go for extremes in any form, and I am quite sure the public do not either."

As a climber and politician, she may conquer "inaccessible pinnacles" - but not yet.

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