Obituary: Lord Shackleton

Tam Dalyell
Saturday 24 September 1994 00:02 BST

Edward Arthur Alexander Shackleton, politician, explorer: born 15 July 1911; OBE 1945; MP (Labour) for Preston 1946-50, for Preston South 1950-55; Parliamentary Private Secretary to Minister of Supply 1949-50, to Lord President of the Council 1950-51, to Foreign Secretary 1951; director, John Lewis Partnership 1955-64, deputy chairman 1975-82; created 1958 Baron Shackleton; Minister of Defence for the RAF 1964-67; PC 1966; Minister without Portfolio and Deputy Leader, House of Lords 1967-68; Lord Privy Seal 1968, 1968-70; Paymaster-General April-October 1968; Leader of the House of Lords 1968-70; Minister in Charge, Civil Service Department 1968-70; Opposition Leader, House of Lords 1970-74; President, Royal Geographical Society 1971-74; KG 1974; President, British Standards Institute 1977-80; FRS 1989; married 1939 Betty Homan (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Lymington, Hampshire 22 September 1994.

SUCH WAS the personal magnetism and easy natural charm of Lord Shackleton that when, in 1974, the Queen conferred the Order of the Garter on him, there was pleasure among even those in the Labour Party who professed themselves to be against sharing in the baubles of British life. Suitable and deserved, we chimed. And the high esteem in which he was held in the party was enhanced by the fact that in the Labour agony of the early 1980s, however uncomfortable with the then party policy he undoubtedly was, Shackleton chose not to leave the party for the SDP, even though he was beseeched to do so by some of his closest friends in politics. Loyalty and a sense of history - in this case, of political splinter movements - were among his myriad of qualities.

Peers who have been seriously influential ministers in Labour governments can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But, not least because I disagreed with him over the Borneo Confrontation and his support for 'East of Suez', I recall that Eddie Shackleton was a force in the innermost circles of Harold Wilson's entourage from 1964 until 1974, far in excess of any titular ministerial position which he may have held.

There were two rather different reasons for Shackleton's hold on Wilson. First, as an intimate friend of Herbert Morrison - and his PPS at the time of the crisis caused after the Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Moussadeq, nationalised that country's oilfields in 1951 - Shackleton had promoted Wilson's cause (and advancement to Cabinet rank in his thirties, as President of the Board of Trade) in sections of the Labour Party which might otherwise have been hostile. Wilson remembered past loyalties in adversity. Secondly, Wilson, a quintessential boy scout, was cheered to have as his friend the son of the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Edward Shackleton was born in 1911, the youngest of three children of Ernest Shackleton, commander of the National Antarctic Expedition of 1909. Eddie Shackleton told me that, sadly, he hardly knew his father when he was growing up. When Eddie was two years old Ernest Shackleton was off to the Antarctic again on the disaster-ridden trans-Antarctic expedition that lasted until 1916, and then immersed in the First World War Naval sagas. As soon as peace came, Shackleton senior was off to Murmansk as Director of Equipment and Transport Mobile Forces in the north Russia campaign, 1918-19. After returning, it was off again as commander of the British Oceanographical and Sub-Antarctic Expedition; and he died on board ship off South Georgia in January 1922.

Eddie was educated at Radley, which he remembered with gratitude and affection. He had been brought up to be self-reliant by his mother, Emily, and his maternal grandmother, the formidable Victorian Mrs Charles Dorman. He once said to me, 'At least, those of us like you and me, who have been brought up by our 19th-century grandmother in early childhood, have become self-reliant.' And exceedingly resourceful he was, brimming with initiative.

In 1932, fresh from Magdalen College, Oxford, he arranged, as Surveyor, the university expedition to Sarawak. Three decades later I asked him why he had chosen Sarawak. 'It was quite simple,' he said. 'My heart was directed to the Antarctic. But my head told me that if I immediately became involved in the polar regions, my contemporaries would suppose that I was playing on my father's reputation. So I decided to go to the Tropical Forest and be my own person.'

The expedition gained national applause by completing the first known ascent of Mount Mulu. Success in the Tropics released Shackleton from his inhibitions about following in his father's footsteps. He organised the Oxford University Expedition to Ellesmere Island in 1934-35.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Shackleton joined the RAF as an intelligence officer, concerned with the U-Boat menace. Soon, he was commanding lumbering Sunderlands, based in the Western Isles, patrolling and searching the North Atlantic for tens of hours on end. A wing commander in his early thirties, Shackleton was mentioned twice in despatches, and appointed OBE. Wryly, he observed to me that one of his few grievances in life was 'that instead of giving me 'Other Buggers' Efforts', they might have made it a DFC. It's that snobbery that operated in high places against Coastal Command.' Shackleton retained a lifelong affection for the RAF, however, and was a natural choice as Minister of Defence for the RAF in 1964, in the new Labour government.

In 1945, Shackleton contested Epsom and Ewell, where he fared significantly better than any Labour candidate in that constituency before or since, attaining over 20,000 votes, and 37.8 per cent of the vote in leafy Surrey. A star candidate, he was chosen at the shortest notice to take on Churchill's prodigy Brendan Bracken at a Bournemouth by-election in November 1945, putting up the Labour share of the vote from 22.8 per cent to 33.7 per cent in four months. For this feat, he was adopted by the Preston Labour Party to take on and defeat Harmar Nicholls (now Lord Harmar-Nicholls) in Preston, in a by-election in January 1946. Harmar-Nicholls said: 'Never did a Conservative candidate have a more honourable opponent.' Subsequently Shackleton held Preston South by 22,716 to 22,567 votes until 1950, and in an epic contest in 1951, with a majority of 16, in an 86.5 per cent turnout, against Neil McLean. In 1955 he was defeated by 474 votes by Alan Green, subsequently Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

Shackleton's first promotion was in 1949 as PPS to George Strauss, who held the key portfolio of Minister of Supply. Herbert Morrison, then Leader of the Commons, recognising Shackleton's talent, filched (Shackleton's own word) him from Strauss; and Morrison later took him to the Foreign Office, at the fag-end of the Labour government.

In opposition, Shackleton found himself in the informal position of becoming the Herbert Morrison faction's contact with the Bevanites. It was all very difficult and highly personal for the reasons that Richard Crossman implies, in the entry to his Backbench Diaries for 15 October 1952:

I walked home to find Eddie (Shackleton) had arrived and we had a long talk. Apparently Herbert Morrison is still as embittered as ever against Attlee and there is no doubt he would like us to believe that he would like to work with Nye. I suspect he probably would since, if the two could get together, Herbert would become Prime Minister. But why should we do it? Terrible as that little ballbearing (Attlee) is he is less dangerous to us than Herbert Morrison with Hugh Gaitskell at his right-hand side.

The description of the former Labour Prime Minister as a 'little ball-bearing' gives a flavour of the times in the People's Party. Shackleton told me that he was not altogether sorry personally to be defeated at the election in 1955. Peter Mahon, Labour MP for Preston South 1964-70, said that Shackleton was remembered as an excellent and caring constituency MP who had taken a special interest in the RAF-supplying factories around Warton.

Out of the House of Commons, Shackleton settled himself in the library of the Royal Geographical Society to write a superbly interesting book on his hero, Fridtjof Nansen: in the polar pantheon, certainly one of the originals, and unique in having no detractors. Shackleton was deeply impressed that in both his expeditions, the first crossing of Greenland, and on the remarkable Fram drift across the Arctic Ocean, Nansen was addressing particular scientific problems. A versatile technical innovator, Nansen gave his name to Nansen Relief, the Nansen sledge and the Nansen passport. For Shackleton, Nansen was several times over a great man: zoologist, oceanographer, artist, kingmaker, Nobel Peace Prize winner, humanitarian and as League of Nations High Commissioner in the inter-war years the saviour of hundreds of thousands of refugees and prisoners of war. In 1922, Nansen was able to announce to the League that 427,886 prisoners of 30 nationalities had been repatriated. But, it was Shackleton who, outside Scandinavia, gave the imprimatur to Nansen's contribution.

Out of Parliament, Shackleton earned his bread and butter as a director of the retailers the John Lewis Partnership; his colleagues told me that he played an active part in that company's imaginative business policies, and 'was worth every penny and more of his director's remuneration'.

With the prospects of a Labour government looking slim, and his own chances of finding a safe seat looking bleak - 'After three knife-edged campaigns in Preston, I could not have faced another marginal' - Shackleton opted to accept Harold Macmillan's offer of a life peerage in 1958. (The chance in 1958 owed more to Macmillan's son-in-law Julian Amery, then a Preston MP, than to Gaitskell, of whom Shackleton was by no means an unalloyed admirer.)

Back in government, Shackleton was allocated special tasks. With a Commons majority of just three it was obviously easier for a minister in the Lords to travel. Vividly I recollect going to Harold Wilson's room in the Commons to complain about confrontation in Borneo, and Lee Kuan Yew, and being gently edged out of the door after 15 minutes with the exasperated Prime Minister saying, 'Well, I just think Eddie Shackleton knows more about Sarawak and Sabah than you do.'

The mosaic of offices Shackleton held after leaving Defence in January 1968 - Minister without Portfolio, Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Privy Seal, Paymaster-General - tends to conceal his two central tasks until June 1970: Lords reform, and being the minister in charge of the Civil Service Department, a matter of intense personal interest to Harold Wilson, an ex-civil servant, and former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. Able to be decisive, thanks to his closeness to the Prime Minister, and a man of great presence and measured authority, Shackleton was highly regarded by the leaders of an as yet unemasculated civil service. Wider entry to the civil service was one of Shackleton's achievements; another was the enhancement of career prospects for scientific civil servants. It was partly, though only partly, on account of his espousing of the cause of scientists in the public service, and his sustained interest as President in the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, during the Callaghan government, that Shackleton was touchingly pleased to be made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1989.

Shackleton's second task - reform of the House of Lords - ended in fiasco and failure, for which he would tend to blame himself. As PPS to Crossman - Leader of the House of Commons, and Lord President of the Council, and the Labour government's Chief Negotiator with their Lordships - I can only offer an informed worm's-eye view. Crossman and his chum Shackleton got into a proverbial huddle with the Tory peers Peter Carrington and George Jellicoe, developed a momentum of their own, and cooked up an elaborate and imaginative scheme of 'reform' of the Second Chamber. Blithely they sailed on, imagining that they were 'carrying our colleagues'. Alas, nothing of the kind. The Crossman/Shackleton plan incurred the wrath of James Callaghan, and the ire of Iain MacLeod, who saw the Lords set up as a rival to the elected chamber. It was left, unlamented, to the untender mercies of Enoch Powell, Michael Foot, and Robert Sheldon on the floor of the Commons. Shackleton, thenceforth, licked his wounds and took the view that any Labour government would be well advised to leave the Lords as an anachronism, and get on with matters of greater urgency to the electorate.

In 1976, Shackleton was the active Chairman of the Economist Intelligence Unit Economic Survey of the Falkland Islands (revised in 1982). With his self-deprecating and delicious humour, he writes in his introduction:

I am reminded of a definition from a member of our team, with experience of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland of an island as 'a piece of land entirely surrounded by advice'. However, most reports contained good advice, although many of the recommendations have never beenimplemented.

One of these recommendations, a prophetic one, was:

that in any major new development of the islands' economy, especially those relating to the exploitation of offshore resources, co-operation with Argentina - even participation - should if possible, be secured. The sovereignty issue overhangs our report, as it does the Falklands, and the absence of a settlement could well inhibit the full development of the islands. This does not, of course, diminish the fact apparent to any visitor to the islands that the population is British and, as was forcefully impressed upon us whenever the subject was discussed, is firm in its desire to remain British.

(Photograph omitted)

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