Why Europe?

Kevin Hickson, Jasper Miles & Harry Taylor (eds.), Peter Shore: Labour’s Forgotten Patriot

Biteback Publishing, 352pp, £19.99, ISBN 9781785904738

reviewed by Robin McGhee

Why Europe? For more than half a century, a small but committed cadre of Eurosceptics have obsessed over our relationship with the continent. It takes precedence over almost every other issue: health, inequality, defence, even the other great questions in foreign policy like our relationship with America or China. Occasionally this monomaniacal obsession has bubbled to the surface and exploded, enveloping our whole country in the smelly gobbets of trade negotiations and fishing rights, always disguised as the scented flowers of patriotism and national purpose.

Peter Shore was one such Euro-obsessive. The Labour cabinets that ran Britain in the post-war era had some intellectually fearsome members, and he was among the brainiest. Whatever else they might say about him, almost all his contemporaries agreed Shore was a brilliant mind, a ferocious orator, and a man of conviction with complete dedication to making the world a better place. Like colleagues such as Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Barbara Castle, he was indisputedly Prime Ministerial stuff. Through decades of careful reading and observation he developed rigorously thought-out but always idealistic opinions about how the economy and society should be organised, and what Labour governments could do to organise it. As a young politician he was most concerned with economics, and his biggest ministerial achievement was probably in improving housing for the poor. Despite this, he is most famous for grumbling about Europe, and the older he got the more it dominated his political career. What drove him to dedicate so much of his life to opposing Britain’s membership of a continental trade bloc?

Unlike many contemporaries, Peter Shore left no substantive memoir, and until now there has been no book-length account of his life. By plugging this gap in the literature, the authors of this biography are doing an important job. They have produced an often judicious and thoughtful book which offers an interesting new route over the trampled ground of post-war political history. It is therefore a great pity that, like their subject, they are Euro-obsessives. Their aim, building on their support for right-wing front group Labour Leave, is to absolve Shore of his Eurosceptic sins and stake him out as a unique tribune for Labour patriotism.

Shore’s family was middle-class and bland: his father was in the merchant navy and his mother from a family of hoteliers. Despite apolitical parents, his political vocation was sketched out from a remarkably young age. As a gangling, precocious teenager in the 1930s he was intelligent and thoughtful, already deeply interested in politics and history, influenced by the poverty of the Great Depression and an egalitarian schoolmaster. By the time he went up to Cambridge he was an avowed democratic socialist. As the authors are right to emphasise, apart from obsession with Europe, Shore held essentially the same ideology as a teenager that he would maintain for the rest of his life.

After war service and graduation Shore found a job at Labour headquarters. Despite a scatterbrained home life – contemporaries recall a rat-infested flat with policy papers strewn everywhere – Shore rapidly ascended the party hierarchy thanks to his brains and talent, becoming an important details man in the relentless wranglings over policy. In the 1950s as now, Labour was in a state of semi-permanent civil war between the left and moderate wings. Shore was very clearly on the left of the party, and his principal concern was economic policy – he wrote a paper supporting gradual nationalisation of the 500 largest companies. By 1963, these views had helped him get ahead in the faction around Labour Leader Harold Wilson; future Chancellor Denis Healey would describe Shore around this period as ‘Wilson’s lapdog’. It was his leader’s patronage that helped Shore bag the safe parliamentary seat of Stepney, and following Labour’s victory in the 1964 election Shore became one of the new Prime Minister’s closest confidants.

Shore seems to have first started thinking seriously about Europe in 1961, as Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made the first tentative stab at getting Britain into the European Economic Community (EEC). Just as his views on other issues seemed to have been with him from an extremely young age, so Shore rapidly formed opinions on Europe which stayed with him for his entire career. It was in 1961, he wrote later, ‘with a genuinely open mind but with the background knowledge of events that all thinking people of my age group possessed, that I read that basic document, the Rome Treaty – it was difficult then even to obtain a copy in the English language – and made my first preliminary analysis of its contents’. And that, it seems, was that. From then on, he was a true believer, and an increasingly strident advocate of the Eurosceptic cause.

Shore’s increasing obsession with Europe clouded out his other interests. At the age of 43 and after only three years in Parliament, he reached the Cabinet in 1967 as Economic Affairs Secretary. This put him at the head of the Department of Economic Affairs, Wilson’s flagship department designed to counterbalance the Treasury. Here was an excellent chance to make good his long-held determination to use economic planning to create a more just society. But the job he had received was a notoriously unworkable office and he found himself crowded out of making policy; already collapsing due to its conflict with the Treasury, the department was quietly abolished in 1969 on Shore’s watch. Wilson would later comment, perhaps rather unfairly, that Shore had been over-promoted.

By contrast, Shore’s reputation as a Eurosceptic was growing. After Labour was voted out of power in 1970, the pro-European Conservative government under Edward Heath began the process of taking Britain into the EEC, succeeding after a blustery parliamentary battle in 1973.

As shadow Europe minister, Shore was the chief rouser for the increasingly vocal Eurosceptic wing of the Labour Party, a position he retained as Trade Secretary when Labour returned to government. These appointments were a characteristic sleight of hand by Harold Wilson. The politics of Europe in this era provide more than a few glimmers of our own time. Like Jeremy Corbyn, Wilson wanted to appease the differing wings of the Labour coalition; like David Cameron, he saw a referendum as the best way of putting the issue to bed.

It was the 1975 referendum that gave Peter Shore his lasting reputation as one of the most prominent Labour Eurosceptics. Though a poor campaigner, he excelled as an orator and an intellectual leader of the Leavers. His reputation was grubbed by speaking alongside far-right leader Enoch Powell, something some other Labour leavers refused to do. Despite this Shore was seen by many in the then strongly pro-European media as perhaps the most articulate supporter of the leave cause, achieving much renown for his passionate speeches and media appearances. The authors are probably right to argue that Shore’s success as a national politician reached its zenith during the referendum campaign.

Unfortunately, his core arguments made even less sense then than they would now. ‘Have we so abandoned confidence in ourselves and hope in our future,’ Shore asked, ‘that we are ready to submit to the presumptuous powers of the Brussels’ authorities, to surrender to them not just our legitimate economic interests, but the basic right of our Parliament and people to decide the policies, to make the laws and levy the taxes on our land?’ The answer to this supposedly rhetorical question was, in fact, no. In 1973 Britain had joined a democratic trade bloc which made rules on a narrow range of issues, by consensus among democratically elected politicians. Shore had fallen for the foundation myth of the Eurosceptic obsessive: that European institutions are a sort of foreign power to which British people contributed nothing. He seemed to be unable or unwilling to recognise that Britain was an equal participant in the alliance, or that its elected Prime Minister was one of the strongest players in European decision-making. In any case, the British people did not agree with him: at the referendum two-thirds of voters plumped to stay.

It was after the referendum that Shore got probably his most powerful and significant job, as Environment Secretary in the tumultuous three-year administration of Jim Callaghan. In this less apocalyptic era ‘environment’ meant the built environment, and Shore’s priorities of slum clearance and improving the inner cities enjoyed modest success. He had more ambitious plans; but at a time of austerity and minority government, his department lacked the money and political opportunity to bring about more significant change.

Labour fell from power in 1979 and Shore began the slow march to his present obscurity. Shore’s far-right ally over Europe, Enoch Powell, once commented that all political careers end in failure, and for all his talents there is little doubt that Shore’s was one of them. He was a plausible candidate in the 1980 Labour leadership election, but came fourth. He tried again in 1983, but did even worse, getting just 3% of the vote; even his own constituency party failed to back him. By the 1990s he was a sad and irrelevant figure, ranting away about Europe from the backbenches, with a sense that he had always stayed second-rank, never quite reaching the heights which so many of his contemporaries believed he deserved.

So why did someone of Shore’s talents become so transfixed by the Europe issue? By far the weakest part of this book as a work of history is its failure to analyse exactly why Shore developed his Euroscepticism. On Shore’s often nuanced and delicately shifting opinions about economics or nuclear disarmament, the authors are generally fair and scholarly. They examine parts of his career many historians would ignore, like in their fascinating chapter on his rather mixed record as a Tower Hamlets MP. Yet by maddeningly refusing to countenance any opinion other than textbook Euroscepticism, the authors fail to look closely enough at what pushed Shore into such fanatical opposition to Britain’s involvement in the EEC.

One explanation which makes some sense, but which the authors do not explore sufficiently, is Shore’s constitutional conservatism. Shore was a fervent defender of the Union. Modern historians such as David Edgerton have discussed the role of economic planning, the welfare state and mass democracy in the development of Britishness as an identity in the 20th century, and Shore was from a generation which was much more likely to see being British as their primary national identity. He was also a strong believer in the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament and the traditional civil service, as well as some of the worst aspects of the British constitution, like the First Past the Post electoral system and lack of freedom of information laws. While the authors do not make clear why Shore held these views, his traditionalist opinions help explain why he would oppose what he perceived as the diminution of British sovereignty, even if what that actually meant was voluntary participation in an international institution in which Britain had a strong and equal voice. A more balanced assessment might try to look at how Shore justified these contradictions to himself, or at least criticise him for apparently failing to notice them.

A less convincing justification for Shore’s Euroscepticism, which nevertheless is at the centre of this book, is that Shore somehow represented a strand of ‘patriotic’ English sentiment. Unfortunately, Shore seems to have convinced himself of this too, and like the authors thought it leads directly into believing we should leave the Common Agricultural Policy and the European Atomic Energy Community. In 2020 the idea it is more ‘patriotic’ to support a cause which has directly threatened the existence of the United Kingdom, abolishing its economic integrity while shattering its geopolitical influence, is inexplicable. The idea that Shore was somehow more ‘patriotic’ for wanting his country not to participate in a Western European trading bloc, is similarly absurd. Why did he insist on displaying his patriotism through the right-wing lens of national identity, rather than through a love of British institutions or cultural achievements? The authors shamefully rate Shore against other ‘unpatriotic’ Labour politicians, whose qualification for the label is little more than that they want Britain to be in the EU, and oppose the relentless shambles and chaos which has been the inevitable outcome of the last four years of Eurosceptic rule.

What emerges from this book is that Euroscepticism is inextricably linked with the right-wing conception of patriotism as being exclusively about national superiority. To be a die-hard Eurosceptic one must believe that national sovereignty is something which is threatened rather than protected by international alliances, and which is therefore inextricably entangled with national identity. This perhaps explains why so many Eurosceptics see this issue as more important than anything else. It explains how they can think Brexit is something worth doing or achievable; and it is incompatible with being on the left. Peter Shore was a talented democratic socialist with a passionate commitment to peace and social justice. It is tragic he bought into such a disreputable lie.
Robin McGhee works in public policy in London, and sometimes writes about politics.