However many important positions they may have filled, most politicians are remembered for one office. Ted Short – Lord Glenamara – albeit an innovative Secretary of State for Education from 1968-70, and a respected Leader of the House of Commons from 1974-76, will always be for me Harold Wilson's Chief Whip, from October 1964 to July 1966.
Wilson's first government was elected with the smallest majority of any party for a century – a mere four seats. Short was the man who had to create a majority to survive all attempts to defeat the government until the Prime Minister was ready to call a general election in March 1966. He had to cope with many tensions within the Wilson administration and some of the external pressures to which he was subject. He was the "business manager", staving off defeat after the loss of Patrick Gordon Walker in the Leyton by-election had reduced the majority to one; in those nerve-wracking days it was Short who had to organise the careful arithmetic, plotting every MP's whereabouts on a talc-covered board – negotiating with a hard Tory opposition on pairing those absent and bringing the sick in by ambulance for crucial votes.
Short destroyed all his letters and papers from his time as Chief Whip except for one letter – dated 10 Downing Street, 11.15pm, 24 July 1965: "My dear Ted, Heartiest congratulations to you, Sydney [Irving, Deputy Chief Whip], to John Silkin [pairing Whip], and to all your Whips on this great result.
"I will say no more than this; between you, you have saved the Labour government and all we are able to do, in all the years we remain, will be due to your efforts at this testing time. It cannot have been easy, and we who have been remote from your efforts can have little idea of the organisation and dedication which lay behind the result. On behalf of the Labour Movement and everyone here and overseas who may be depending on us – thank you for what you have done. Yours ever, Harold"
The reason Short destroyed the rest of his huge correspondence was, he said, that "in the 20 months that I had been at No 12 Downing Street, I had accumulated thousands of letters – each with a copy of the reply I had sent pinned to it. Many were angry reactions to some government action or inaction; others were effusive and fulsome in their praise of the Government – a fair number, written no doubt, with the Honours List in mind! But the vast majority were between these two extremes. This was an episode in my life which had ended, and I had always thought it was a conceit on the part of politicians to accumulate their "papers" and eventually bequeath them to a library or university. Apart from Churchill's and Lloyd George's, few of these collections are ever likely to be of sufficient historical significance to justify storage, let alone cataloguing." One of Short's problems was that he was far too modest.
Edward Watson Short was born in 1912, the son of a draper in the thenremote village of Warcop, 36 miles from Carlisle and 40 miles from Darlington. His family's cramped living conditions might have been easier to tolerate had the business of "C. Short, Tailorand Draper. Agent for Pullers of Perth" not suffered from the coming of the motor car, with the result that customers did their shopping in Appleby, Penrith and Carlisle.
As a five-year-old it stuck in his memory that one of the village men who had been in the trenches when the Germans used gas returned on sick leave unable to speak. A hoarse whisper was all that remained of the deep voice he had had when he went off to war.
His infant's room had an enormous coal fire with an iron fireguard around it. The headmaster, who was the only qualified teacher, lived in the schoolhouse next door, but when Short started at the school he was away at the war as a Company Quarter Master Sergeant in Mesopotamia. Ted had a succession of supply teachers, an experience which half a century later, when he was Secretary of State for Education and Science, caused him to emphasise the need for continuity in schools and for infant teaching in particular.
Short was always deeply grateful to the village of Warcop: "I got what early education I had beyond the three Rs from our own village people. Willie Savage of the Band of Hope taught me much, rather by example than precept, and my close association with the vicar gave me even more. Miss Hill the Scoutmaster taught me what she believed were the manly virtues as set out in Scouting for Boys as well as many handicrafts beside. From Jack Withers I learned about dogs, from Jack Walker at the Railway Inn how to fish; from Captain Tim about birds. Ned Burrow the deaf cobbler gave me a love of poetry and Donald Wood did the same for me with drawing and painting. Jimmy Gardiner taught me to make wireless sets and from Willie Watt I developed skill and standards in gardening. I learned woodwork in the joiner's shop at the sawmill and metalwork in the smithy. Captain Jim made me play a straight bat and keep my eye on the ball – rules which have a wider application than cricket. What a marvellous education Warcop was." If ever a politician were fashioned by his early years, it was Ted Short.
After Bede College in Durham and marriage in 1941 to Jenny Sewell, his devoted wife of 67 years, he served in the Durham Light Infantry – about which he was to write one of the really good regimental books, The Story of the Durham Light Infantry (1944). Throughout his time as a minister Short, a kindly and considerate man, especially to parliamentary colleagues in adversity, was to bear the imprimatur of the clipped light-infantry officer.
With little teaching experience, in 1947 he became headmaster of the Princess Louise County Secondary School in Blyth. Living in Newcastle and working under a different authority he was able to be a member of the City Council, and became leader of the Labour group, combining the position with Secretary of the South Northumberland branch of the National Union of Teachers. The NUT was an important part of his life, and even before he became Education Secretary he was the driving force in the influential NUT group in the House of Commons.
Elected for Newcastle upon Tyne Central in 1951 with 64 per cent of the vote, he was appointed by Clement Attlee as an Opposition Whip in 1955. Hugh Gaitskell made him Deputy Chief Whip in 1962. After his stint as Chief Whip and with a Labour majority of 100 following the 1966 election, in which Short recorded 19,291 votes, a staggering 76.7 per cent, Wilson appointed him Postmaster General. The most important and delicate part of that brief was the Government's relations with the BBC, a matter of overwhelming importance personally to Wilson and an indicator of the trust and faith that he had in Short, a man of impeccable loyalty.
From April 1968 to June 1970 Short occupied the position he had honourably coveted, Secretary of State for Education and Science. His 1971 book Education in a Changing World is an unusually objective account of what he was trying to do. On 1 November 1968, on the occasion of the Queen's Speech, he said: "For the first time in our history, next year expenditure on education will exceed that on defence. Of course, local authorities will have to get better value for money. They will have to decide priorities both in their services generally and within education itself."
Short was a champion of the local authorities, and in a difficult economic period, partly because of his special relationship with the Prime Minister, he was able to get more than his share of funding. His priorities were nursery-school education and school buildings. He was able to say that Edward Boyle, his respected adversary and a great Conservative education minister, would be pleased to know there was more educational building in progress in Britain in 1969 than at any time in its history.
In my time in the House of Commons I have never listened to more caring, dignified, serious educational exchanges than those between Sir Edward Boyle and Ted Short. For example: "Sir Edward Boyle: Will the local authorities have the power to assist voluntary pre-school playgroups which come up to proper standard? That seems important.
"Ted Short: We are looking at the possibility of helping pre-school playgroups under the urban programme. I pay tribute to the work they are doing – many are performing a first-class job."
His parliamentary colleagues were always aware that Short's priorities were guided by his pocket borough constituency's needs, since Newcastle Central was, as he said in his maiden speech on 7 November 1951, one of the worst-housed divisions in the country, with the highest incidence of tuberculosis.
Opposition after 1970 was an unhappy time, and he was astonished to return to government in February 1974 as Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House, a post which he held until 1976. The incoming Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, with whom he had an uneasy relationship, dropped him from the government but compensated him with the chairmanship of Cable and Wireless (1976-80), a job for which he had been qualified for his time as Postmaster General.
In the last two decades Lord Glenamara, as he became in 1977, was part of the Labour Party's conscience in the House of Lords. His last great cause was the fight against tuition fees. Speaking in the House of Lords on 23 July 1997, he said: "I have been a member of the Labour Party – and have been proud to be a member of the Labour Party – nearly all of my adult life, but I am not proud today. I am ashamed at what the Labour government is proposing to do. I am ashamed that my Labour government propose to elect two enormous barriers between young people from working-class homes and higher education. That is precisely what the Government proposes to do.
"I believe that over the lifetime of a parliament it will deter tens of thousands of young people from poorer homes from entry to higher education. If the scheme is put into operation, a newly qualified graduate from a poorer home will leave college with a debt of anything between £10,000 and £15,000. If he comes from a well-off home and his parents have financed him he will have no debt at all. Young graduates often marry young graduates. If they do, the debt will be twice as much – it may be £30,000 – at a time when they hope to buy houses, have children and so on."
That this should happen, said Glenamara, was "utterly wrong ... It sickens me. I do not know whether I can remain in a party and support a government who are prepared to do this to their own people. The people to be hammered are those who have created the Labour Party and sustained it throughout this century."
Glenamara maintained another lifelong passion in his retirement. He was the leading gentile over four decades in the Labour Friends of Israel.
Edward Watson Short, schoolmaster, trade unionist and politician: born Warcop, Westmoreland 17 December 1912; Headmaster, Princess Louise County Secondary School 1947-51; MP (Labour) for Newcastle upon Tyne Central 1951-76; Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and Government Chief Whip 1964-66; Postmaster General 1966-68; Secretary of State for Education and Science 1968-70; Deputy Leader, Labour Party 1972-76; Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 1974-76; chairman, Cable and Wireless 1976-80; Chancellor, Polytechnic of Newcastle upon Tyne (from 1992 University of Northumbria at Newcastle) 1984-2003; CH 1976; cr 1977 Lord Glenamara of Glenridding, Cumbria; married 1941 Jennie Sewell (died 2008; one son, one daughter); died 4 May 2012.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies