Big Cyril’s Secrets

Is obesity a quick route to becoming a national treasure? At his peak of 29 stone 12 pounds, Sir Cyril Smith may have been the fattest MP in history. When Smith died last month, Nick Clegg inevitably praised him as “a larger-than-life character”, and the Independent called him “a true political giant”. Smith was remembered, not just as a prominent Liberal in a dry period for the party, but also as a highly likeable figure. 

Gangly George Orwell had his George Bowler observe in Coming Up For Air that a fat man “goes through his life on a sort of light-comedy plane, though in the case of…anyone over twenty stone, it isn’t so much light comedy as low farce”. That fits with Smith’s reputation as a cheerful figure of high entertainment value, and it corresponds with his famous quip about Parliament: “the longest-running farce in the West End”.

There is a less charming sense in which Smith treated Parliament as theatre. In a 1981 Commons debate over asbestos legislation, Smith gave a detailed and closely-argued speech playing down the need for safety reforms. He praised the asbestos industry and warned against taking hasty action. In fact, the speech had been written for him by the leading asbestos company Turner and Newall, which had a big factory in Smith’s Rochdale constituency. When confronted in his last years with the results of asbestos poisoning in the area, he simply explained that it had been useful to have someone else write a speech on a subject he knew little about.

You might have expected all this, along with unproven allegations of paedophilia, to moderate the admiring words about his big character and plain speaking. But it has not happened. Nothing dislodged the image of “Big Cyril” (the title of his autobiography), who appeared in credit card advertisements trying unsuccessfully to touch his toes, and on a Private Eye cover after entering Parliament in 1972, being told by Jeremy Thorpe, “Four more seats and you’ll be able to sit down.” Big Cyril’s official likeability survived it all.

And the reason must lie first and foremost in his bigness. Eric Pickles, Ken Clarke and John Prescott have all profited from being heavy, the last unharmed by sex scandal or by association with the Labour government. When it comes to trusting politicians, the public appears to share the prejudice of Julius Caesar: “Let me have men about me that are fat.” It may be that we need to believe that at least some politicians are not merciless or greedy, nor even hard-working and virtuous, but simply harmless. And the best choice for the role, the man who has no deep motivations, who would never think of doing anything underhand, is a fat man. 

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