Lord Shore of Stepney

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The Independent Online

Patrick Cosgrave died 16 September 2001

Between Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, Peter Shore was the only possible Labour Party leader of whom a Conservative leader had cause to walk in fear. His party, alas for them and for him, never appreciated that fact.

Shore was a tall man, comfortably over six feet. He was, moreover, almost preternaturally thin. He would have looked anaemic, were it not for the glowing eyes, and the uncontrollable comma of grey hair, which toppled over the right eye. What was most extraordinary about him, however, was his beautiful, and booming, voice. That so slender a frame could produce such full-bellowed organ tones was a surprise – even an amazement – to all who heard him. Peter Shore was, with Enoch Powell, the most captivating rhetorician of the age.

Yet, his political beginning suggested that he would be a placeman, rather than the outspoken nationalist (again, like Powell) he was to become. When, in the 1980s, he was fighting off challenges (from the left wing of the Labour Party) to his candidacy for Bethnal Green and Stepney he emerged, clearly, as a man who was possessed of his own identity: he made it clear that if, in the then fashionable word, he were to be deselected, he would resign his seat, and stand as an independent candidate. His constituency party backed off.

It was an improbable conclusion to a political career begun as a self-effacing backroom boy. Born in Great Yarmouth in 1924, he was the son of a merchant-navy captain; his mother had inherited a hotel in the resort but his father was "hopeless" at management and they lost everything in the Depression and moved to Liverpool. Shore went to Quarry Bank Grammar School (Alma Mater later of his parliamentary contemporary Bill Rodgers, and of John Lennon), from where he won an exhibition to King's College, Cambridge, to read Economics. After National Service in the RAF, he went to work for the Transport and General Workers' Union, "because there was nobody else who would give me a job".

It was 1948, however before he joined, first, the Fabian Society and, then, the Labour Party. Joining the Fabians expressed what was to remain – in terms of domestic politics – an enduring mark of his career, a gentle and responsible socialism which had its roots much more in the Methodist history of the Labour Party than in any intellectual theory of how the nation should be governed.

Withal, Shore remained, to the end of his life, the most ferocious of patriots, thus testifying to an underlying nationalism in Labour politics. The Conservative Party likes to lay claim to the title of the patriotic party. When my wife first met Shore, and found him an embedded nationalist, she asked me: "Why isn't he one of us?" I explained – I hope successfully – how deeply ran the nationalist belief in the old Labour Party. From 1966 Shore came to exemplify it so effectively that he was the only possible Labour leader whom I, as a Tory, feared.

He left the TGWU in under a year, and joined the Labour Party's Research Department. Within months he was Head of the Department, and had drawn the attention of the future leader of his party, Harold Wilson. In 1950 Shore fought St Ives in the Labour interest. It was 1959 before he won another nomination – that for Halifax. And it was 1964 when he entered the House of Commons as member for Stepney. The following year the Prime Minister appointed him as his Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Thenceforward Shore's rise appeared to be irresistible. Harold Wilson made him Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Ministry of Technology in 1966 and moved him, a year later, to the same job at the Department of Economic Affairs. A year further on Shore became Secretary of State for Economic Affairs. By then, however, Wilson had settled his mind on British membership of the European Economic Community. He had also decided that the Department of Economic Affairs should not continue in existence in competition wih the Treasury. In October 1969, unwilling, as always, to let down a colleague, he made Shore Minister without Portfolio. One of his main considerations was Shore's unremitting hostility to the EEC.

Thus began an extremely tricky period in Shore's career. The Wilson government lost the general election of 1970. Shore was elected, comfortably, to the Shadow Cabinet. When Labour returned to power in February 1974 he became Secretary of State for Trade – but only on the strict understanding that he could speak his own mind in the course of the promised referendum campaign on British membership of the European Community. I worked closely with him in the course of that campaign; and there was no kinder, nor warmer, colleague except, perhaps, Neil Marten.

Shore was to hold office, both of the shadow and the real variety, again. Having spoken on European matters from 1971, he followed his stint at the Department of Trade (there he fought against European integration with resolution) with a period as Secretary of State for the Environment. When the Conservatives won the general election in 1979 he became Shadow Foreign Secretary. But it was not until 1980, when James Callaghan resigned as Leader of the Opposition, that Shore faced his most crucial, and most cruel, test.

He wanted to lead his party, and believed he could become Prime Minister. He seemed to have a sound base of support. The party was against British membership of the EEC. So was he. It was predominantly attached to a working-class ideal. So was he. It liked, however, at least a flavour of the intellectual. He was an intellectual. It enjoyed a rousing speech. He could write and deliver such speeches better than any rival. Finally, he was the favoured candidate of the left wing's father figure, Michael Foot. Foot proclaimed, indeed, that he wanted Shore to succeed Callaghan: it seemed that Shore's rivals Denis Healey and Tony Benn would, easily, be vanquished.

And, then, Foot decided to stand himself. "Jill," he said, referring to his wife, Jill Craigie, the writer and film director, "has said she would never forgive me if I don't try it." It is a matter of melancholy record that the Labour Party thereupon split apart. A diminished centre went with Denis Healey. An ideological left-wing element went with Tony Benn. The majority, however, chose Michael Foot to lead them to disastrous defeat in a general election in 1983. Peter Shore never sought, nor held, office again.

In many respects Shore could be held to be the victim of his own principles; but he was also the victim of changing times. His own tradition of Labour politics was founded on an almost instinctive decency. Towards the end of his Commons life representatives of a more energetic socialism sought to oust him from his constituency: with the power of his oratory, and the goodness of his nature, Shore saw them off. But the fact of the matter remained that his intense patriotism had come to viewed by old and new left alike as unacceptable; and this happened by the middle of the 1980s. After that no avenue to power was open to him.

As dissension mounted in the Labour Party in his constituency, Shore, in 1995, decided to call close of play, intending to devote his remaining years to a major work on the meaning of socialism, notes on which he had been accumulating since his time in the Labour Party's Research Department.

He stood down from Parliament at the 1997 election, returning to the Lords the same year as Lord Shore of Stepney. It was in the House of Lords, after speaking in a debate on monetary policy, that he collapsed in July.

Last year, Shore gave an interview to Austin Mitchell for The House Magazine. "I've always been a somewhat ambivalent figure in terms of left, right, and centre in Labour politics," he said. "A lot of people see me as in a sense an establishment man, a kind of headquarters man, a chap at the centre, and they're right. But they also see me as being really a rather dangerous radical, and maybe they're right about that too.

"I don't know. I think not."

Patrick Cosgrave

 

With the possible exception of Ian Mikardo, no Labour politician, in my experience, of the Fifties, Sixties or Seventies matched Peter Shore as a drafter of a policy document, writes Tam Dalyell. Shore was rigorous and conceptually very clever. At Cambridge, he had been a member of the "Apostles", the élite Cambridge intellectual society.

His was the mind which formulated the 1964 election manifesto that squeezed Harold Wilson into Downing Street. Officially, in 1965-66 he was the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary; in fact, he was the policy architect and drafter of the 1966 Labour manifesto and then the 1970 manifesto. Gwyneth Dunwoody, daughter of Morgan Phillips, told me that as General Secretary her father had the highest regard for Shore's "quality of thought" and contribution to Labour Party policy.

His influence was enhanced by the deft touch he displayed in his relations with Wilson's policy-ideas inner circle, Richard Crossman, Tommy Balogh, Nicholas Kaldor and, not least, Marcia Williams. Alas, it was precisely this perceived and actual closeness to Wilson that was to disadvantage Shore in the eyes of Cabinet colleagues and MPs. "Peter's trouble is that he cannot throw off the reputation of being Harold's faithful poodle," Crossman told me. "And, if he did, Harold would be furious at his disloyalty. He can't win, either way."

Just one example of his dilemma was when he was one of the few cabinet ministers to follow the Prime Minister in support of the Privileges Committee recommendation that I be censured for having been too free with Select Committee minutes of the Select Committee on Porton Down and chemical weapons. Jim Callaghan said he did not take part in blood rituals. Tony Benn locked himself in the toilet, to emerge too late to vote. And others found good reasons not to be present.

As soon as Wilson ceased to be Prime Minister, Shore emerged within weeks as his own man. In 1978, he received 145,000 votes for the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, going up to 217,000 in October 1979, which was a brilliant performance in the circumstances. From the position of Shadow Foreign Secretary, he performed powerfully, but did one thing that I believe was later to cost him the leadership of the Labour Party. He vehemently – cautious vehemence was one of his characteristics – urged that the Opposition should support the United States and Margaret Thatcher in boycotting the Moscow Olympics, and therefore urged Labour to abstain; 147 of us cocked a snook at this advice and defied the whip.

It was annoyance over this episode that helped to persuade many on the Left to pressurise Shore's hitherto chief leadership backer, Michael Foot, to stand as party leader, rather against his will and better judgement, himself. The inevitable result was that Shore was eliminated in the first ballot in October 1980.

Perhaps the abiding memory of his generation of the Labour Party is of a lithe, stooping, passionate figure, leaning over the balcony at the legendary Labour Party special conference on the Common Market on that sweltering July Saturday of the Special Party Conference in 1971, and, following an impassioned pro-Market speech by the great orator Professor John P. Mackintosh MP, replying with no less passion and no less eloquence. It was high drama.

My own abiding memory is different – it is of being taken by Peter in his car as guest speaker to a branch meeting of the Stepney Constituency Labour Party and, after I had spoken, seeing him in earnest conversation with a greatly upset, elderly Bangladeshi constituent.

One of his constituency party officers paid him a huge compliment. "Peter takes Akbar's problem as seriously as he takes the Treaty of Rome."

 

Peter David Shore, politician: born Great Yarmouth, Norfolk 20 May 1924; Head of Research Department, Labour Party 1959-64; MP (Labour) for Stepney 1964-74, for Stepney and Poplar 1974-83, for Bethnal Green and Stepney 1983-97; PPS to the Prime Minister 1965-66; Joint Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Technology 1966-67, Department of Economic Affairs 1967; Secretary of State for Economic Affairs 1967-69; PC 1967; Minister without Portfolio 1969-70; Deputy Leader, House of Commons 1969-70; Secretary of State for Trade 1974-76; Secretary of State for the Environment 1976-79; created 1997 Baron Shore of Stepney; married 1948 Elizabeth Wrong (one son, two daughters, and one son deceased); died London 24 September 2001.

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