In the second of our series on the history of Jewish MPs we remember the unforgettable Renee Short. This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
When you’re a backbench MP it can be difficult to make yourself seen or heard amidst the persistent white noise of Parliamentary life. For Renee Short this wasn’t a problem. Flamed haired and fabulously attired she complimented this with a fiery presence that could leave many male contemporaries quaking in their brogues.
In the late sixties she was a household name mainly due to her numerous public disagreements with fellow Wolverhampton member Enoch Powell. A fierce aversion to bigotry was just part of her make up. Over this blog I’ll re-evaluate three decades spent on the Labour benches where she tirelessly addressed social issues including racial discrimination, abortion, AIDS, and not forgetting her beloved theatre.
Renee, the stage is yours!
Friday Night Dinner
Renee Gill was born in 1919 a child of the Midlands. Her formative years was split between living with paternal grandparents and spending weekends with her mother, Miriam Marks. Miriam was the daughter of Jewish Russian emigrees. These visits always involved a traditional Friday Night dinner that marked the Shabbat.
She would go on to study in Manchester a city then populated by a vast diaspora. Here she met future husband Andre Short. After a successful stint in journalism the lure of local politics took her in a new direction. As a Home Counties resident, Renee had the thankless task of campaigning for socialism in a staunchly Tory stronghold. But her tenacious style pricked the ears of the Labour hierarchy.
Class of 64
The 1945 General Election had been the launchpad for the political career of Barbara Castle. Nineteen years later another determined redhead would emerge from the rank and file. Labour nominated Renee for the winnable seat of Wolverhampton North East pitting her against Conservative candidate Miranda Greenaway, a dentist by trade. Getting over the line with a four-thousand majority.
Harold Wilson’s new government engendered an air of optimism across the country. Riding on a crest of this wave Renee wasted little opportunity getting a maiden speech under her belt. Speaking passionately about housing shortages and even throwing in a reference to King Solomon. Its resonance enraptured the Liberal leader Jo Grimond so much that he followed it with this touching tribute.
Jo Grimond: May I congratulate the hon. Lady for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) both on my own behalf and on behalf of the whole House. I am a feminist. I believe, in all seriousness, that we ought to have many more women Members in Parliament. I believe that when they have got here they should not be expected to confine their speeches to certain subjects which, for some reason, are supposed to be the only concern of women. I genuinely welcome the fact, therefore, that she has had the courage to make her maiden speech both so early and upon an economics debate. Everybody in the House must have found it well informed; we were very sympathetic to the humanity she has displayed towards the difficulties of her constituents over housing—one of the most important problems in this country. May I assure her, on behalf of the House, that when she addresses us again I have no doubt at all that she will be listened to with deep respect.
(Read the debate in full; https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1964/nov/04/economic-affairs#S5CV0701P0_19641104_HOC_94)
Black Country Uproar
In post-war Britain the Black Country was a popular place to settle for Asian immigrants. Several members of the Sikh community gained employment working on Wolverhampton’s bus services. However, in 1968 controversy ensued when the council decided to outlaw staff wearing turbans in the workplace.
As protests intensified Renee found herself in the eye of a storm. Yet she didn’t flounder relentlessly tabling questions to the House till the ban was overturned. The situation was not helped by Enoch Powell who used the region as a case study for discriminatory pronouncements.
Relations between the pair was so toxic that Renee requested to the Attorney General that Powell be prosecuted under the new Race Relations Act. This animosity was highlighted when the nation went to the polls two years later. BBC cameras broadcast the constituency results from the Civic Hall in a notably hostile atmosphere that resembled a Wolverhampton Wanderers match.
Renee Short: I suppose that everyone knows the name of my constituency—at least, they know the name Wolverhampton. There is often a good deal of confusion as to which hon. Member represents which seat. I find this extraordinary. I do not know how anyone could confuse me with the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell). The right hon. Gentleman never makes a speech about this problem in the House; he makes his speeches outside, and he always manages to do so before a General Election or a local election. His speeches are always reported widely in the Press, especially the local Press. His latest effort was a speech made in Walsall. I think that he was speaking in the constituency of the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid). There he spread alarm and despondency about the numbers of immigrant children in Wolverhampton schools. I agree that many Wolverhampton schools have a high percentage of coloured children. In his Walsall speech the right hon. Gentleman said that a constituent of his had complained to him that her child was the only non-immigrant child in her class. Challenged to mention the name of the school so that the facts could be investigated, the right hon. Gentleman has consistently refused to do so.
I’m Every Woman
Richard Crossman’s Diaries chronicling his experiences on the governmental frontline was required bedtime reading for politicos when published in the mid-seventies. Diary entries retelling his tenure as Minister for Social Services detailed a strained relationship with Renee Short regarding abortion legalisation.
Once established Renee sought to bring forward legislation to end the practice of backstreet abortions. She worked closely with the Liberal Party’s David Steel and the Abortion Law Reform Association to draft the Medical Termination of Pregnancy bill that was given Royal Assent in the winter of 1967.
As a new decade dawned Barbara Castle was leading the way for equal pay across the sexes. Renee had been championing this cause since her days as a councillor in Hertfordshire. When the Commons debated Castle’s seminal bill it was Renee stealing the headlines after lambasting Sir Ronald Bell for his sexist remarks about the manual capabilities of female agricultural workers.
Sir Ronald Bell: Would the right hon. Lady apply the Bill—I take it that she takes seriously, as a legislative proposal, a Measure of this kind—to these facts? Suppose a woman and man are doing a typical farm job such as tractor driving (excluding repairs), threshing, lifting swedes and turnips, riddling and sorting potatoes, cutting cabbages and assuming that this difference of 25 per cent. is found, under the Bill both will have to be paid the same. Why? What does the right hon. Lady intend to do about that? She will no doubt get out of that one by saying, "Because of his physical strength", the significance of which may have been diminished by technical progress, but not to the point of nil, "where it can be demonstrated clearly that the man's work is worth one-third more, then either the man or the woman will have to leave that employment".
Renee Short: Rubbish!
Queen of the Committees
Despite occasional murmurings Renee was never selected to be a Cabinet Minister. Instead she earned her stripes devouring bill clauses in Committee Room proceedings. It was a setting where her idealism could flourish without hindrance from the party whip. Speaking on matters of the heart such as adult mental health with a sincerity to help those less fortunate.
Away from Parliament Renee became an authority on prison reform. In 1979 Macmillan published her book, The Care of Long-term Prisoners to great acclaim. Always something of a Europhile, she’d visited Scandinavia to research their liberalised penal systems. Her pioneering fieldwork on the rehabilitation process for women prisoners brought a host of invitations to appear on various current affairs programmes.
Renee’s swansong in Parliament saw her raise concerns about the AIDS crisis. Never shying away from putting pressure on Thatcher’s administration to be more proactive in assisting those suffering from the epidemic.
Renee Short: asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what representations he has received from the Terrence Higgins Trust about the newspaper advertisements wh ich his Department has made on acquired immune deficiency syndrome and if he intends to amend the information contained in these advertisements as a result of such representations.
Barney Hayhoe: None.
(Read the debate in full; https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/written-answers/1986/mar/26/aids#S6CV0094P0_19860326_CWA_343)
The Other Renee
Bowing out of politics prior to the 1987 General Election Renee left behind a Labour movement riven with factions. Unburdened from public duty she fully embraced extra-curricular activities like poodle breeding. Achieving the distinction of having one of her dogs competing at Crufts.
Theatre was always a passion and previously Renee had worked behind the scenes managing her own stage design business. She eschewed retirement by accepting a delegatory position on the London Roundhouse project. Never one to second guess she surprisingly was an adviser for the successful ITV comedy satire The New Statesman starring Rik Mayall. Renee died in January 2003, former colleague Tam Dalyell noting she spent her final years speaking exclusively in French.
Renee – Nous te saluons!
Renee Short: I was not aware that we had written in such a provision. However, the moral obligation is clear. Television tends to use only experienced actors and actresses. To get them, it looks round the provincial repertory theatres and decides which of the actors and actresses are of sufficient experience and talent to use. It creams off young actors who have been trained in the provincial theatres and who have gained their experience through the opportunities given by the investment of public money via the Arts Council. I feel that there is a strong case for suggesting that the television authorities have a responsibility to put something back into the living theatre.
Hansard – Parliamentary Debates
Obituaries – Renee Short written by Julia Langdon, The Guardian, 20th January 2003
Obituaries – Renee Short written by Tam Dalyell, The Independent, 20th January 2003
The Care of Long-term Prisoners by Renee Short, 1979
The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister Vols 2 & 3 by Richard Crossman, 1976
1981-1982 Special Standing Committee – Mental Health Bill (Lords), House of Commons Paper 439
BBC General Election 1970 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cq8PMfpA-6g&t=9733s