Review: Peter Shore – Labour’s Forgotten Patriot by Kevin Hickson
Responding to the renewed interest in the life of the Eurosceptic Labour politician Peter Shore, the authors have produced a timely reappraisal of a man of principle, writes Nick Thomas-Symonds MP
On Tuesday 3 June 1975 – 48 hours before the UK referendum on Common Market membership – Peter Shore, then secretary of state for trade, spoke in an Oxford Union debate. With hands gesturing, hair flying and tie swirling, he denounced those whom he said played on the fear of how the UK would survive outside European structures. Available on YouTube, Shore’s mesmerising rhetoric has had thousands of views in recent years, as the debates on Brexit have led to a renewed interest in his political life. Indeed, the authors of Peter Shore: Labour’s Forgotten Patriot – Kevin Hickson, Jasper Miles and Harry Taylor – set out that the book arises from their own involvement in the Labour Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.
Shore’s opposition to the European project lasted to the end of his life. In 2000, just before his death the following year, he published Separate Ways: Britain and Europe, a title which aptly captured his own approach. When he was born in 1924, it was into a very different political world. The youngest of three children, his initial years were spent in the Two Bears Hotel in Great Yarmouth where his father Robert was licensee. In 1931, the Great Depression caused the sale of the business; Robert went back to his previous career in the Merchant Navy and Shore moved with his siblings and mother Eleanor to the Mossley Hill area of Liverpool. He thrived at school and won a place at Cambridge to read history. He served in the RAF from 1943 to 1946 before joining the Labour Research Department, honing skills he later used in drafting the party manifesto in 1964, 1966 and 1970. A loyalist of Harold Wilson, he won the Stepney constituency in the 1964 General Election and was rapidly promoted to Cabinet as secretary of state for economic affairs and remained as minister without portfolio when the department was wound up in 1969.
Wilson felt that Shore let him down by failing to support his In Place of Strife trade union reforms and, by 1975, Shore and Wilson were on opposite sides of the debate on UK membership of the EEC. After James Callaghan took over as prime minister in 1976, Shore was appointed environment secretary and grew in prominence during the IMF Crisis. Tony Benn argued for an Alternative Economic Strategy of curbing imports, extending public ownership and price controls; Chancellor Denis Healey put forward a programme of public expenditure cuts. Shore advocated a third way of selective import controls and a Keynesian stimulus, themes he was to develop as shadow chancellor in the early 1980s.
Shore was fascinated by the exercise of leadership. His 1993 book, Leading the Left, studied Labour leaders from George Lansbury to John Smith. The 1980 contest represented the best chance of securing the top job himself. The authors argue that his failure to compromise and engage in political machinations undermined his bid. The critical moment was Michael Foot’s late decision to enter the contest himself, rather than support Shore as the person best-placed to defeat Healey. When Foot himself stepped down in 1983, Shore’s time had passed.
The authors accept that “placing Shore on the left-right spectrum is problematic”. He became a target for deselection in the 1980s; his protectors included John Spellar’s Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union. When, in 1990, Margaret Thatcher told Shore that, on Europe, he was “beginning to sound more and more like me” he was hurt, since his whole approach to the economy had been designed to provide an alternative to the New Right. His gravestone was inscribed “Democrat, Socialist and Champion of British Independence”. Shore would have wanted equal emphasis on all three.
Peter Shore: Labour’s Forgotten Patriot
by Kevin Hickson, Jasper Miles & Harry Taylor
Nick Thomas-Symonds is Labour MP for Torfaen
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