Emanuel Shinwell: Politician, Peer, Pugilist
In the first of our series on the history of Jewish MPs we chronicle the ‘nine lives’ of Manny Shinwell.
This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
You know you’ve made it when you are asked to appear on Desert Island Discs. In 1978 Lord Shinwell one of British politics most esteemed figures accepted the invitation. For once the legendary presenter Roy Plomley couldn’t get a word in edgeways as Shinwell with his trademark chutzpah regaled upon a Parliamentary career that begun fifty years earlier. When asked how he acquired his famous ‘gift of the gab’ he did not draw upon his cockney roots or the many years spent in Glasgow’s Gorbals but to the fact that as a young man he had kissed the fabled Blarney Stone on a visit to Ireland. It was a life that begun in the reign of Queen Victoria and was now entering its dotage in a very different world. Shinwell had seen it all and now we must go back to the beginning of a story that needs to be told.
In the Ghetto
Samuel Shinwell (Sheinwald) was a popular character on the streets of Whitechapel. But within the tight-knit Jewish community he was deemed a troublemaker by the hugely influential local Rabbis. The final straw came in 1889 when he helped organise a tailor’s strike for better pay and working conditions that resulted in him being exiled to South Shields for his pains. Five years earlier his first child had been born, and he was given the Hebrew name Emanuel ben Pasach (Manny). After settling in the North East and opening a small seamen’s outfitters he called for his son to join him. The young Manny found himself cut adrift from the love of his mother, Rose and a brood of dependant younger siblings.
I Belong to Glasgow
This father and son team eventually moved on to Glasgow where they were reunited with the rest of the Shinwell ‘clan’. Manny was sent out to work at a young age spending his limited recreation time in boxing gyms honing his street-fighting skills. On the advice of a neighbour in their tenement, he began frequenting the city’s Public Library which he later recalled as ‘a haven’. A bookworm was born initially drawn to the science fiction of HG Wells. Between jobs in the ‘rag trade’ he began to express a keen interest in politics. At St George’s Square he’d spend many hours listening to the various soapbox speakers on leading topics of the day such as Irish Home Rule.
Once A Clydesider
Moving away from the traditional Jewish employment of tailoring Shinwell was attracted to the greater rewards now found on the River Clyde. The 1911 Glasgow Seaman Strike was his first taste of industrial action and he revelled in its bluster. In the following years he formed the British Seafarers Union putting him into contact with the Clydeworkers Committee leader Willie Gallacher. But a power struggle began with a rival union led by a former MP, Havelock Wilson leading to numerous violent incidents. Shinwell later admitted to sometimes concealing a lead pipe on his person for protection. Away from the docks he took the advice of his wife Fanny and offered support to the 1915 Rent Strikes. Led by the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association it saw 40,000 tenants withhold their rents leading to government intervention for fairer controls to be implemented.
On the Ropes
It now seems inevitable that Shinwell would join the Independent Labour Party. His first experience of their annual conference saw him involved in a melee that ended with a court appearance. At the December 1918 ‘Coupon Election’ Shinwell stood for the Linlithgow seat and attained a respectable number of votes despite the local paper calling him a Bolshevik. But in the first weeks of the new year his name found itself across many national dailies after a General Strike in Glasgow led to the notorious ‘Battle of George Square’ with the Riot Act being read from the steps of the city chambers. Identified as a ringleader Shinwell was arrested and charged with incitement. Alongside Willie Gallacher he was sentenced to five months imprisonment in Edinburgh’s Calton Jail. Denied political prisoner status he spent most of his incarceration sewing horses’ nosebags.
A Fighter’s Chance
On leaving prison revolution seemed to be in the air. Willie Gallacher became the face of the British Communist Party while Shinwell encouraged by Labour leader Ramsey McDonald had another crack at Linlithgow. It was second time a charm at the 1922 General Election and a victorious Shinwell was soon on the train to London where he slept blissfully through the journey. But there was no sleeping on the job and his maiden speech involved a chamber tete a tete with the formidable Nancy Astor. Later in the decade when the Independent Labour Party formed its first government Shinwell was given the cabinet post of Minister of Mines. In a brief but memorable governance he was credited with devising a blueprint for future coal industry nationalization. Also aligning himself with the National Equine Defence League for the better treatment of pit ponies to the dismay of less sympathetic mining leaders.
(Read Shinwell v Astor (1922) - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1922/nov/23/debate-on-the-address#S5CV0159P0_19221123_HOC_90)
The political instability of the inter-war years was highlighted by unstable minority governments. Though Ramsey McDonald claimed the premiership on two occasions the Independent Labour Party remained an ideological battlefield. Oswald Mosley was recognised as the rising star of the movement. However, Shinwell didn’t trust this young buck remarking that, ‘the fellow stinks of money and insincerity’. Spurning an opportunity to be part of McDonald’s 1931 National Government meant a troubling spell in the political wilderness for Shinwell at the age of forty-nine. But four years later he challenged a fading McDonald for his Seaham seat and won. At a victory celebration, the crowd sung to him,
Vote, Vote, Vote for Mr Shinwell
Who’s that knocking at the door
If its Shinwell let him in, if its Ramsey kick his shin
He won’t come-a-knocking anymore
As dark clouds loomed over Europe Shinwell and fellow Jewish member Sydney Silverman urged for government intervention in the Spanish Civil War. On the 4th April 1938 at a Question Time debate, he lost his cool on the subject prompting Commander Bower MP to say, ‘Go back to Poland’. This anti-Semitic insult was met with a punch that left his ‘noble friend’ suffering from a burst eardrum. During the war Shinwell enlisted with the Home Guard. He also published his first book The Britain I Want that proposed a national minimum wage. The post-war election saw Labour return to power with an unprecedented mandate but what role would Shinwell play in Clement Atlee’s New Jerusalem?
(Read Shinwell v Bower (1938) - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1938/apr/04/spain#S5CV0334P0_19380404_HOC_41)
The Coldest of Winters
Atlee’s new government consisted of many idealists like Aneurin Bevin and Hugh Dalton. For Shinwell whose socialist principles was straight from the gut these left-wing intellectuals left him somewhat cold. But he was back in the big time as Minister of Fuel and Power with a brief from the top to nationalise the coal industry. Working alongside a young Harold Wilson they got the requisite nationalisation bill drafted in double-quick time. On the day of its Second Reading there was a spine-tingling rendition of The Red Flag from the Labour contingent in the Commons Chamber. But this optimistic mood didn’t last as the winter of 1947 changed everything.
From late January Britain was hit with temperatures below freezing that would last for forty-four days. Major transportation issues left millions of tons of coal stuck in transit and draconian power cuts had to be decreed. The popularity of a Shiver with Shinwell slogan was a sign that he had become the ‘bogey man’ of the crisis. But he wouldn’t go down without a fight causing much controversy when he publicly stated that, ‘the opinions of non-unionised workers are not worth a tinkers cuss’. Atlee then stepped in relieving Shinwell of his duties by handing over the governmental responsibilities to the up and coming Hugh Gaitskell. Years later in conversation with author John Doxat, Shinwell said that the ominous threat of the Official Secrets Act stopped him from disclosing the truth of what really happened behind the scenes as the nation froze.
(Read Shinwell v ‘A Very Cold Great Britain’… (1947) - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1947/feb/07/industrial-fuel-supplies#S5CV0432P0_19470207_HOC_211)
Monty and Me
Unlike his old friend Willie Gallacher, Shinwell embraced the establishment. Enjoying tea at Windsor Castle and long lunches with Lord Beaverbrook. An unexpected friendship also developed with General Montgomery when Shinwell joined the War Office. Though not a cabinet position as the Cold War raged this was a frontline department and these two old sages ran it with military precision. This tenure coincided with the continuation of the Middle East conflict centred round Israel which he visited for the first time in 1953. Throughout the visit he maintained a neutral stance even when addressing a meeting of the Israeli Labour Party. By this time, he was back on the opposition benches but still capable of a memorable performance. Famously clashing with Winston Churchill when he cast aspersions on the then Prime Minister’s pronouncements of Soviet expansionist ambitions. Churchill enjoyed it so much he later sent Shinwell a bottle of whiskey.
(Read Shinwell v Churchill (1951) - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1951/dec/06/defence#S5CV0494P0_19511206_HOC_488 )
The death of his beloved wife, Fanny saw Shinwell take a step back from public life. But by the mid-sixties, he was in the limelight again as Harold Wilson nominated him as Labour Party Chairman. Always at hand for advice, he became a consigliere to the new Prime Minister. There was to be much unwanted press attention when his son Ernie went to prison for a fraudulent building project in Ghana that involved a convicted arms dealer. His chairmanship proved to be short-lived and soon afterwards he announced his intention to stand down as an MP. At eighty-five years old he entered the House of Lords where he was warmly received by all parties. In October 1984 to mark his hundredth birthday the peers formed a guard of honour before a celebratory Royal Gallery reception. Leader of the House, Lord Whitelaw remarked upon his uncanny ability to make speeches without the use of notes. Though it might be the case that Shinwell took greater pride from recently being voted ‘Pipeman of the Century’. Less than two years later he died after a bout of pneumonia and was cremated at Golders Green.
(Read: The Centennial Tributes - https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1984/oct/18/the-lord-shinwell-centennial-tributes#S5LV0455P0_19841018_HOL_2)
Manny Shinwell: An Authorised Biography – Peter Slowe, 1993
Shinwell Talking – A Conversational Biography to Celebrate his hundredth birthday – John Doxat, 1984
Hansard, Parliamentary Debates
Desert Island Discs, Rt Hon Lord Shinwell – BBC Radio Four, 23rd May 1978 - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p009myqp