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Shaw, Geoffrey Mackintosh [Geoff] (1927–1978), Church of Scotland minister and politician, was born at Inverleith Place, Edinburgh, on 9 April 1927, the third of four sons of John James McIntosh Shaw (1885/6–1940), a prominent Edinburgh surgeon, and his wife, Mina Draper. Brought up in a well-to-do Edinburgh family, he was educated at the fee-paying and prestigious Edinburgh Academy of which he entered the preparatory school in 1933 and went on to be school dux. Intended for a legal career, he entered Edinburgh University in 1944 to study law, but was called up for national service at the end of the Second World War and served in the Royal Navy for two years, mainly in Malta. Having decided to enter the Church of Scotland ministry, he returned to Edinburgh University in 1948, graduating MA in 1950. He then studied theology at New College, Edinburgh, graduating BD in 1953. From 1953 to 1954 he held a fellowship with the Union Theological Seminary in New York and had the experience of working with and being immersed in the poorest sections of the community in East Harlem. The work in New York helped to shape Shaw's evolving theological and political outlook. He returned to Scotland and was full-time secretary of the Scottish Churches Ecumenical Association from 1954 to 1955; he then became a youth worker at Church House, Bridgeton, Glasgow.

The New York experience had pointed out the practical ways in which Christianity could be taken to and help the least fortunate in society and Shaw was determined to realize this once back in Scotland. With his friends and their wives, Walter and Elizabeth Fyfe and John and Beryl Jardine, he set up the Gorbals Group in December 1957. The Gorbals Group was an innovative approach to projecting the social mission of the Church of Scotland and the three ministers took the decision to live among the community, rather than rely on the conventional approach of the outreach programmes where ministers would go into poor areas. The group also adopted a corporate sense of government with decisions being taken democratically; all money was pooled and each would live on the minimum allowance to bring their own earnings into line with the poorest elements in society. An essential part of the project was that the members of the group had to share the same worldly experiences as their community. Although the experiment was designed to reflect a primitive form of Christian organization, its socialist ethos was all the more remarkable coming as it did at a time of Conservative political dominance in Scottish society in the 1950s and because the church was warning against the dangers of atheistic communism. Inspired by the development of the Iona Community led by George MacLeod, Shaw and his associates reflected the leftward and liberal attitudes held by younger members of the clergy which would eventually come to dominate the official vision of the Church of Scotland by the mid- to late sixties. In 1963 the group became ecumenical, involving other denominations in its work in the Gorbals.

Ordained a minister in the Church of Scotland in 1958, Shaw held a non-parochial appointment as an evangelist with the Gorbals Group, living from 1960 at 74 Cleland Street in the Gorbals. A well-read and refined man, he was culturally far removed from his neighbours in one of the most notorious districts of Glasgow on account of its endemic poverty and poor housing and social conditions. Although the area was subject to slum clearance and redevelopment, which often meant moving people from old sub-standard housing in tenement buildings into new sub-standard housing in high-rise flats, one of the perennial problems associated with the church's social mission was the lack of churches in working-class areas. The slum clearance programmes and creation of new council estates actually made contact more difficult and the churches even more removed from daily life. By living in the Gorbals, Shaw shared in all the problems of the community including gang violence, vandalism, and social inequality. He was passionate about opportunities for the young and spent a great deal of his time involved in youth work. He was often on hand to bail out youngsters arrested by the police. The lack of social opportunity for young people was one of his principal concerns and he believed that this was leading to a cycle of crime, despair, and hopelessness. His dedication and commitment led to his being greatly esteemed by the local community.

By the late sixties, under the impact of an expanding welfare state in which social services became increasingly professionalized, Shaw's voluntarist approach seemed to be marginalized. As state agencies took more responsibility for tackling poverty, he looked towards more direct political solutions. He had joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1959 and become its Glasgow secretary in 1961. In the mid-1960s he had joined the Labour Party, becoming secretary to the Gorbals constituency Labour Party, and first stood in municipal elections in 1967, but was defeated as a result of his advocacy of integrating protestant and Roman Catholic schools. Further candidatures in Glasgow corporation elections in 1968 and 1969 were also unsuccessful, but in May 1970 he was elected to represent Govanhill on the corporation, where Labour became the majority party in May 1971 and formed the administration.

In July 1972 Shaw became vice-chairman of the Labour group on Glasgow corporation, and deputy leader of the administration. Following the municipal elections of May 1973 he became leader of the administration in Glasgow. In that year, following local government reorganization, the Strathclyde regional council was created, and he was elected a councillor in the first elections, held in May 1974, and was chosen by the majority Labour group on the council as its convener. He therefore became leader of one of the largest units of local government in Europe and one that embraced about half the Scottish population.

Shaw's task as convener of the Strathclyde regional council was a mammoth one. Introduced by the Conservative government, the local government reorganization that had brought the regional council into being was unpopular. The problem facing Strathclyde was how to bring together its disparate geographical entities. The region covered elements of the rural highlands as well as the industrial, urban, western central belt. Shaw's approach was to ensure that no group was marginalized. This was a difficult task in itself. Meanwhile the sheer size of the council, employing more than 85,000 people and serving a population of 2.3 million, ensured that Shaw had an enormous workload.

On taking up the regional council convenorship in 1974, Shaw narrowly lost his position as leader of the Glasgow city administration. His Cleland Street home was demolished in slum clearances in 1975. On 12 December 1975 he married Sarah Dorothy Mason (b. 1950), a social worker with the Iona Community in Glasgow, and they set up home in Queen Mary Avenue, Glasgow. In March 1978 he suffered a heart attack, from which he appeared to recover. After a relapse he was taken to Glasgow Royal Infirmary where he died on 28 April 1978. Many believed that it was the pressure of making the Strathclyde regional council work had led to his untimely death. After a funeral in Glasgow Cathedral, he was cremated at Linn crematorium.

At the time of Shaw's death the parliamentary bill to establish a devolved legislature for Scotland was under discussion. Shaw was reckoned a front runner for the Labour leadership in the proposed new Scottish assembly that depended on the successful outcome of the referendum vote in 1979. His saintly disposition and his commitment to the community of both the Gorbals and the wider Strathclyde population has led to speculation as to ‘what might have been’. Politically he was to the left of the party and this contributed to his popularity among the rank-and-file members. As leader of Scotland's largest local authority, he had the necessary experience to lead a new assembly, and had shown considerable leadership qualities in getting the cumbersome organization up and running. Furthermore, he was a committed devolutionist. It was assumed that members of the devolved assembly would be chosen from the ranks of local government and not the existing parliamentary Labour Party. Shaw's early death and the failure of the referendum to endorse the assembly has led a number of commentators to talk of him as the most likely leader of the first devolved Scottish government that never was.

Richard J. Finlay


R. Ferguson, Geoff: the life of Geoffrey M. Shaw (1979) · Church of Scotland Yearbook (1966)


photographs, repro. in Ferguson, Geoff