When Edward Shackleton was ten years old, his father, the explorer Ernest Shackleton, died while on a voyage in the South Atlantic. Edward Shackleton was inspired by his father to become an adventurer himself, and led expeditions to Malaysia and Canada. Shackleton joined the RAF during World War Two, becoming a Wing Commander in the Coastal Command. However, it was his later career as both an MP and a Peer in UK Parliament which proved to be his biggest adventure. This blog, written by Miriam Gibson, will look at Shackleton’s career in Parliament.
Representing the Labour Party, Shackleton was elected MP for Preston in a 1946 by-election, six months into Clement Attlee’s post-war premiership. Shackleton used his RAF experiences to add to debates about military policy in the early years of the Cold War. During a Commons debate about the defence budget, Shackleton argued in favour of increased military spending. Demonstrating his willingness to back controversial policies, Shackleton stated that his support for this was, “bound to be an unpopular decision”. He acknowledged that many Labour MPs would oppose the policy, but that he was “proud that it is an unpopular decision for our party,” and that he felt the decision was necessary for national security. As MP for a Lancashire constituency, Shackleton took particular interest in the county’s cotton industry which, by the 1950s, was dwindling. Shackleton accused the government forcing through measures which would protect the free market economy, and of disregarding recommendations from Lancashire’s Trade Unions.
The loss of the 1951 election led to factionalism within Labour. Attlee remained party leader, while future of the party was split between the socialist Bevan faction, and the more conservative-leaning Gaitskellites. Shackleton was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Herbert Morrison, who was himself in a rivalry with Gaitskell on the right wing of the party. These conflicts, which continued until the mid-1950s, were embarrassing and complicated for Shackleton. When Shackleton lost his seat in the 1955 snap election, he told colleagues that he was relieved to be removed from the in-fighting.
However, the value of Shackleton’s knowledge and experiences meant that, three years after losing his seat in the Commons, he was appointed to the Lords. He took his seat in 1958 as Baron Shackleton, one of the first Life Peers, and remained in the Lords until his death in 1994. When Harold Wilson became Prime Minister after Labour’s victory in the 1964 election, he appointed Shackleton to the Ministry of Defence. As Minister for the Air Force, Shackleton could not only use his RAF expertise, but drew on his earlier career as an explorer when engaging in debates about international military policies.
Shackleton’s skills in this field proved invaluable during the struggle in Yemen during the 1960s. Known in Britain as the Aden Emergency, this conflict saw the Federation of South Arabia attempt to remove British troops from the area of Aden. Guerrilla soldiers attacked British troops and local security forces. The British army responded indiscriminately, using stop-and-search tactics and armoured cars when patrolling Aden. These tactics worsened relations between the two sides. In Spring 1967, Foreign Secretary George Brown sent Shackleton to Aden. Effectively representing Brown, Shackleton’s task was to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. He met with rulers of the States of the Eastern Aden Protectorate and the King of Saudi Arabia. Shackleton had less success when attempting to contact the guerrilla organisations and the UN Mission. Realising that Britain would have to release its military hold on Aden, Shackleton made recommendations to the British Government regarding when and how peace talks should take place, and which politicians should be involved. British soldiers were evacuated from the area in November 1967, and a Marxist paramilitary organisation seized power. Shackleton’s involvement in the conflict can therefore be argued to be a failure for both British diplomacy, and the security of Aden. Shackleton's involvement wasn't seen that way at the time the below letter Denis Healy praises the “satisfactory conclusion” Shackleton achieved.
Back in Britain, in 1968 Shackleton took on the role of Paymaster General. This role gave him a key position in the newly-created Civil Service. His focus was on removing elitism from the Civil Service, and making entry to the Service more accessible to people from a variety of backgrounds. Today, many Civil Servants enter through the Civil Service Fast Stream, which is open to university graduates from any background or area of the UK.
The early 1970s saw a return of the tumult in the Labour party which Shackleton had witnessed during the 1940s and 50s. He stood down from top-tier politics in 1974. Shackleton retained his interest in international relations, and in 1976 spent four weeks in the Falkland Islands, researching for a government paper. Falkland Islands Economic Study was published later that year, and included investigations about education, fishing, agriculture, and social issues in the Falkland Islands. Shackleton wrote that investment from Britain could ensure economic sustainability of the Islands, and he stressed the need for expansion of the airport. Shackleton recommended that HMS Endurance remain stationed in the South Atlantic to ensure that Britain had a strong military presence there. It seems that he was determined not to see a repeat of the situation in Aden, where the British loss of control of a territory led to chaos. However, many of Shackleton’s recommendations, including regarding HMS Endurance, were overlooked by the UK Government. Military cuts led to the decommissioning of HMS Endurance, which was planned for April 1982. Before this could take place, Argentinian troops landed on East Falkland. This was the beginning of a months-long conflict between Britain and Argentina over the sovereignty of the Islands
Argentina surrendered in June, bringing an end to military action on both sides. In the aftermath of the conflict, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asked Shackleton to update his Economic Study. In less than two months, Shackleton researched and wrote 137 pages of further recommendations about economic sustainability of the Falklands. This time, nearly all his suggestions were implemented. Shackleton continued to advocate for the Falklands Islands, founding the lobbying group South West Atlantic Group and eventually being given the freedom of the Falklands capital. When he died at the age of 83, the Shackleton Scholarship Fund was set up in memory of both him and his father. While the elder Shackleton is celebrated for his remote explorations, Baron Edward Shackleton is remembered in Parliament for his contributions as an MP and a Peer, and his impacts, both successful and unsuccessful, on British policy at home and abroad.
Roth, Andrew. Shackleton, Edward Arthur Alexander, Baron Shackleton. ODNB, 2008.