Our annual (est. 2015) awards, recognizing the key figures of the last twelve months, start by remembering a great figure of the post-war Labour Party.
This year the Labour Party lost the referendum. Twice. First, it campaigned – with slightly less than total enthusiasm on the part of its leaders – to remain in the EU, and found itself on the losing side.
Then, at a time when British politics was in a state of flux unparalleled in living memory, Labour decided to ignore the only issue on the national agenda, and instead to spend the summer mumbling incoherently to itself in a spectacularly ill-judged leadership election.
The consequence has been that Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition has become even more irrelevant and insignificant than even it was before the referendum. The debate over the future relationship between Britain and Europe is being conducted in Labour’s absence.
The Conservative Party, together with the press, are engaged in an argument that will re-shape Britain and that – even in the absence of any conclusion – feels like the only show in town.
The Liberal Democrats have taken a hard Europhile position, pledging to remain in the EU despite the Brexit vote – which, for a party seeking to attract protest votes, is a shrewd move.
But Labour’s position on Europe? No one knows, and few care. Keir Starmer is busily applying his legal training to a forensic cross-examination of the government’s position (such as it is), but where’s the Labour vision? In the wake of a 52-48 split on the nation’s identity, a glimpse of a big picture would be helpful.
As things stand, the future of the kingdom is being determined exclusively by the Right. We think it would be nice if the Left had something to say as well. And perhaps it could start by reconnecting with its own Eurosceptic tradition.
Which is why – in a perverse spirit of denying reality – we’re naming Peter Shore as our Politician of the Year (dead). Not because he was, but because he should have been.
In a parallel universe, where Britain has a functioning Labour Party, he’s the name on everyone’s lips. In this world, it is possible that he may need some introduction.
Born in Great Yarmouth in 1924, Peter Shore attended the Quarry Bank Grammar School in Liverpool, an institution whose future pupils included Bill Rodgers of the SDP, the trade union leader David Basnett, as well as a trio of light-entertainment heavyweights: Derek Nimmo, Les Dennis and John Lennon.
Shore went on to study history at Cambridge, to serve as a flying officer in the RAF in the Second World War, and to join Labour’s research department, of which he was head from the 1959 to the 1964 election, writing the first draft of the manifesto for the latter contest.
After two failed attempts elsewhere, he was elected as MP for Stepney in 1964, remaining in place until his retirement from the Commons 33 years later, despite battles with local activists. Seen as being one of Harold Wilson’s favoured political sons (‘Harold’s lapdog,’ as Denis Healey called him), he was appointed Wilson’s parliamentary private secretary and became a cabinet minister in 1967.
His stints as economic affairs secretary in the 1960s, and then at trade, followed by environment, in the 1970s, were not marked by any great achievements. Wilson himself was said to have been disappointed: ‘I overpromoted him. He’s no good.’ As shadow chancellor, however, in the early 1980s, he was one of the few successes of the Michael Foot years, staunchly arguing for a Keynesian economic policy at a time when such thinking was going out of official fashion.
Clearly he harboured thoughts of becoming leader, but the independence of his thinking meant that he never really fitted into any existing faction within the party. ‘When I am speaking from the Dispatch Box, I am reflecting government policy as a whole,’ he explained in 1975; ‘except when I am clearly reflecting my own policies.’ Nor was he sufficiently committed to self-advertisement to build a cult following of his own.
So when he did stand for the leadership in 1980 and again in 1983, he came bottom of the poll both times; on the latter occasion, he won just 3.1 per cent of the electoral college.
His judgement wasn’t flawless. His attachment to the principles of trade unionism and the practice of the nationalized industries meant that he opposed Barbara Castle’s reform proposals for unions, and led the government’s doomed attempt to stop Freddie Laker providing cheap air-travel.
He also, after being eliminated on the first ballot, damaged the party by campaigning for Foot to become Labour leader in 1980, possibly playing the decisive role in swinging the contest from Healey. (Sadly he didn’t have the same impact when backing Bryan Gould for the leadership in 1992.)
But he got most of the calls right. And in the 1980s, in particular, he staked out a social democratic position that offered a way forward for Labour: interventionist when it came to the economy, patriotic when it came to Britain’s interests.
He was as critical of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan as he had been of America during the Vietnam War; he supported the Falklands War; he attacked the Natonal Union of Mineworkers for not holding a national ballot before calling a strike; and he defended the union in Northern Ireland. He also – despite his earlier membership of CND in the 1950s and ’60s – supported Britain retaining nuclear weapons.
And then there was Europe.
Shore was unenthusiastic from the outset. In 1962 it was he who produced the first draft of Labour’s statement on the subject, demanding a better trade deal for the Commonwealth if Britain was to enter the European Economic Community. He went on to play a major part in the No campaign in the 1975 referendum, arguing passionately, persuasively and positively. And he became ever more hostile thereafter, fighting against the Exchange Rate Mechanism, against the Maastricht Treaty, against the single currency – all at a time when the party was moving in the opposite direction.
In the 1970s and ’80s the Bennite Left railed against the EEC as ‘a bosses’ club’, but this wasn’t Shore’s primary objection to the project. Rather, he rooted his argument in terms of democracy and culture.
‘I did not come into Socialist politics in order to connive in the dismantling of the power of the British people,’ he insisted in 1973. ‘To anyone who has a feel for the national community to which we belong, which I believe is basically the English speaking world rather than the European Continent, British membership is not an attractive proposition.’
He carried on fighting his corner to the end of his life. In 2000, the year before he died, he published Separate Ways (Gerald Duckworth & Co.), exploring the idea of a multi-speed Europe. He also distrusted Tony Blair, writing that the Labour establishment was drifting dangerously far from the party’s roots.
‘A gap has opened up from the bulk of their fellow citizens,’ he argued, and he related the phenomenon to that of an earlier time: ‘Today “fellow travelling” has been replaced by “Euro travelling”. Among the intelligentsia and the establishment there has taken place an emotional and intellectual transfer of loyalty from London to Brussels.’
And, he insisted, this was all an issue of democracy:
Above all, it has been the task of the Europhiles to undermine the self-confidence of the British people in their ability to survive and prosper in the postwar years without compromising their independence and violating their democracy. Like it or not, they say, we have now to abandon our freedoms and immerse ourselves, not in alliance, but in ‘ever-closer union’ with our continental neighbours.
In recent times, the idea of the career politician has come to be seen as a bad thing. Peter Shore was the exception, a man whose entire life was concerned with politics, but who remained decent, principled and pragmatic throughout.
Patriotism without prejudice, consistency without a closed mind, and, at the centre, a commitment to parliamentary sovereignty – to be exercised over the European Union and the economy alike. Shore still makes for a fine political role model. And he had wonderfully floppy hair, as well.
Other award-winners this year: