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A Union Activist in the House of Lords

Lawrence Bush
May 7, 2017

British activist Emanuel (Manny) Shinwell, who went from being a union leader, to being a Labor member of Parliament for forty years, to being a government minister, to being a lifetime peer in the House of Lords, died at 101 on this date in 1986. His leadership during dock-worker strikes in 1911 and 1919 landed him in prison twice. Elected to Parliament in 1922, he served as Secretary for Mines in the first Labor government (1924) and became Minister of Fuel and Power in the Labor government of 1945, overseeing the nationalization of the coal industry and serving as national scapegoat when the coal supply dried up in the freezing winter of 1947. Shinwell also served as Defense Minister in Clement Attlee’s Labor government in 1950-1951, after Britain joined NATO. Shinwell became Baron Shinwell, a life peer in the House of Lords, in 1970. Shinwell, the oldest of thirteen children, came from a very poor immigrant family, his father a tailor from Poland and his mother a Londoner of Dutch Jewish descent. When he was 9, the family moved to Glasgow, where he acquired his Scottish accent and a reputation as a bare-knuckle boxer. “He was tough and turbulent,” said Labor leader Neal Kinnock upon Shinwell’s death, “and he believed that strength and power should be used to help those who were not strong or powerful.”

“[H]e had little time for religious observance and it was not until he was in his eighties that he began appearing on Jewish public platforms as a defender of Israel. A week after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, he addressed 18,000 British Jews in London’s Trafalgar Square. Identifying himself solidly with Israel, he said it was entitled to hang on to all the land captured in 1967, and accused Britain of hypocrisy for demanding territorial concessions by Israel. Although a Socialist, his support for Israel remained unabated when Israel’s Labor Party was defeated by Menachem Begin.” —JTA

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.