Educated at Robert Gordon"s College, Aberdeen and in South Africa where he lived 1947–1954, he worked as a draughtsman. Hughes first stood for Parliament in 1959 at North Angus and Mearns, where he came second to the Conservative incumbent Colin Thornton-Kemsley. Robert Hughes was one of those ”rebels”.
Tam Dalyell, Peter Doig, and Adam Hunter were the other Scottish Labour MPs who helped overturn the Young European Socialists vote. and on 27 September 1997 was created a Life peer as Baron Hughes of Woodside, of Woodside in the City of Aberdeen.
He was Under-Secretary of State for Scotland from March 1974 – July 1975, but resigned in disagreement with the government"s Incomes Policy. Lord Hughes is a Vice-President of the British Humanist Association.
Under his chairmanship the Anti-Apartheid Movement campaigned against the Thatcher government’s refusal to impose sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s and organised the 1988 ‘Free Mandela’ concert at Wembley Stadium which was televised by the British Broadcasting Corporation and broadcast around the world. Hughes attended the independence celebrations in Namibia in 1990 and acted as an observer at South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994.