Emanuel Shinwell, the son of a tailor, was born in London in 1884. One of thirteen children, Shinwell and his family moved to Glasgow and at the age of 11 began working for his father. Later he worked as a message boy and in a factory making chairs but eventually returning to the clothing trade.
In 1903 Shinwell became interested in politics. Neil Maclean gave him a pamphlet by Karl Marx entitled Wages, Labour and Capital. As his later explained in his autobiography: "I was not the first nor the last young man to discover that Marx is hard going, and his arguments on the theory of surplus value, his explanation of labour's part, and his castigation of the exploitation of the working class, were difficult for my mind to grasp. I read and re-read that pamphlet and eventually succeeded in extracting some worth-while material for discussion."
Elected to the Glasgow Trades Council in 1911, Shinwell worked closely with other socialists in Glasgow including David Kirkwood, John Wheatley, James Maxton, William Gallacher, John Muir, Tom Johnston, Jimmie Stewart, Neil Maclean, George Hardie, George Buchanan and James Welsh. .
After the war Shinwell was involved in the struggle for a 40 hour week. The police broke up an open air trade union meeting at George Square on 31st January, 1919. The leaders of the union were then arrested and charged with "instigating and inciting large crowds of persons to form part of a riotous mob". Shinwell was sentenced to five months and Emanuel Shinwell got three months. The other ten were found not guilty.
A member of the Labour Party, Shinwell was elected to the House of Commons in November 1922. Also successful were several other militant socialists based in Glasgow including John Wheatley, David Kirkwood, James Maxton, John Muir, Tom Johnston, Jimmie Stewart, Neil Maclean, George Hardie, George Buchanan and James Welsh.
Defeated in the 1924 General Election, Shinwell returned to Parliament in April 1928. When Ramsay MacDonald became prime minister following the 1929 General Election, he appointed Shinwell as Financial Secretary War Office. He later served as Secretary for Mines (June 1930 - August 1931).
The election of the Labour Government in 1929 coincided with an economic depression and Ramsay MacDonald was faced with the problem of growing unemployment. MacDonald asked Sir George May, to form a committee to look into Britain's economic problem. When the May Committee produced its report in July, 1931, it suggested that the government should reduce its expenditure by £97,000,000, including a £67,000,000 cut in unemployment benefits. MacDonald, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, accepted the report but when the matter was discussed by the Cabinet, the majority voted against the measures suggested by Sir George May.
Ramsay MacDonald was angry that his Cabinet had voted against him and decided to resign. When he saw George V that night, he was persuaded to head a new coalition government that would include Conservative and Liberal leaders as well as Labour ministers. Most of the Labour Cabinet totally rejected the idea and only three, Philip Snowden, Jimmy Thomas and John Sankey agreed to join the new government.
Shinwell, a strong opponent of MacDonald's new government, lost his seat at Linlithgow in the 1931 General Election. In 1935 Shinwell returned to the House of Commons after defeating Ramsay MacDonald at Seaham.
In 1936 Shinwell attempted to persuade the British government to supply military aid to help support the Popular Front government in Spain. Along with Aneurin Bevan, George Strauss, Sydney Silverman and Ellen Wilkinson he toured the country during the Spanish Civil War. He later wrote: "The reason for the defeat of the Spanish Government was not in the hearts and minds of the Spanish people. They had a few brief weeks of democracy with a glimpse of all that it might mean for the country they loved. The disaster came because the Great Powers of the West preferred to see in Spain a dictatorial Government of the right rather than a legally elected body chosen by the people."
After the Labour Party won the 1945 General Election the new prime minister, Clement Attlee appointed Shinwell as Minister of Fuel and Power (July 1945 - October 1947). He also served as Secretary of State for War (October 1947 - February 1950) and Minister of Defence (February 1950 - October 1951). He lost office after the Conservative Party victory in the 1951 General Election but held his seat in the House of Commons and between November 1964 and March 1967 was Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Shinwell wrote three volumes of autobiography, Conflict Without Malice (1955), I've Lived Through it All (1973) and Lead With the Left (1981). Emanuel Shinwell, who was created Baron Shinwell in 1970, died aged 101, of bronchial pneumonia, on 8th May 1984.