Peter Shore attended Quarry Bank High School and won an exhibition to read history at King’s College, Cambridge although his studies there were interrupted by his time in the RAF from 1943 to 1946. Having graduated with a first in 1948 his first foray into political life was as an unsuccessful Labour candidate for St Ives in the 1950 general election. He then joined the Labour research department, becoming its head in 1959, a year which also saw him unsuccessfully contest a parliamentary seat, this time being the marginal constituency of Halifax. He finally entered parliament in 1964 as the member for Stepney and became part of what was known as Harold Wilson’s ‘kitchen cabinet’. His rise in the government was impressive, gaining junior ministerial posts at the Ministry of Technology and Department of Economic Affairs, and then entering the cabinet as Secretary of State at the DEA. His closeness to Wilson meant that his rapid promotions were not to everybody’s liking. Denis Healey derisorily referred to him as Wilson’s “lapdog” which prompted the Tory Iain MacLeod to refer to the DEA as “a mink-lined kennel’ for Wilson’s favourite “poodle”. A number of cabinet colleagues believed Shore to have been promoted beyond his capabilities and rightly or wrongly he gained a reputation as an intellectual lacking the wherewithal to actually get things done. The DEA, which had been Wilson’s invention, was itself something of a flop as the control of economic policy remained firmly in the grip of the Treasury.
In the late 1960’s he began to espouse the cause which in some ways would define the rest of his career, opposition to membership of the Common Market. In many ways his attitudes about the place of Britain in relation to Europe, and also his pro-protestant stance on Northern Ireland, reflected a traditional Toryism which won him few friends in his own party. Nonetheless, when Labour again took power in 1974 he was in the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Trade. He campaigned on an anti-market ticket during the 1975 referendum and after Callaghan replaced Wilson was made Secretary of State for the Environment.
His final years in government were not happy ones. He fared poorly in his ministerial brief and suffered personal tragedy when his twenty-year-old son, Piers, died from a heroin overdose in 1977.
When Callaghan resigned many thought Shore was a viable candidate for the leadership but his opposition to the Common Market and his increasingly voiced disquiet at the leftward drift of the party ensured that he alienated enough factions to guarantee a humiliating defeat in the first ballot. He stood again for the leadership in 1983 with an equally disappointing outcome. He finally lost his seat in the shadow cabinet and despite entering the Lords as Baron Shore of Stepney in 1997 he remained on the fringes of party and parliament being a strident critic of Tony Blair and New Labour at a time when they were hugely popular in the country at large.
Most assessments attribute Shore’s failure to gain the highest offices or lead Labour partly to a degree of integrity which precluded him from currying favour or staying silent on issues in which he had strong views.
He died on 24th September 2001 aged 77.
There is an extensive biography of Peter Shore at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
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