Chris Smith attended Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he gained a PhD with a thesis on Coleridge and Wordsworth, and was President of the Union. He worked for a housing charity and became a councillor in the London Borough of Islington before narrowly winning the seat of Islington South at the 1983 general election. He became an opposition whip in 1986, a shadow Treasury minister from 1987 to 1992, and shadowed the environment, heritage, pensions and health portfolios between 1992 and 1997.
In 1997 he was appointed to Tony Blair's Cabinet as the first Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. He held this position throughout the Labour government's first term, but was sacked and returned to the back benches after the 2001 election to make way for the up-and-coming Tessa Jowell.
Smith is a keen mountaineer and was the first MP to climb all the 3000-foot "Munros" in Scotland.